There Are No Winners with ‘The Biggest Loser’

Clara T. Fryman

On a chilly early morning final Oct, Jim DeBattista, forty seven, came trundling throughout the end line of a just one-mile operate seeking gassed. DeBattista, a youth soccer coach from Philadelphia, is a contestant on The Greatest Loser, the notorious weight-loss activity exhibit that rebooted on January 28 after being abruptly […]

On a chilly early morning final Oct, Jim DeBattista, forty seven, came trundling throughout the end line of a just one-mile operate seeking gassed. DeBattista, a youth soccer coach from Philadelphia, is a contestant on The Greatest Loser, the notorious weight-loss activity exhibit that rebooted on January 28 after being abruptly canceled in 2016. The mile operate is just one of many fitness issues contestants tackle, and DeBattista is dead final. There is great news, though. His time has improved the most amongst all the gamers given that their final mile operate two months before, from 20 minutes to around 13, which has aided transfer him a minimal nearer to the show’s $a hundred,000 grand prize. When he hears the outcomes, he offers a minimal fist pump. DeBattista may perhaps have lost the race, but he wins the day. 

I’ve arrive to verify out the new Greatest Loser, which purports to have been “re-imagined for today’s audiences” by having “a holistic, 360-degree seem at wellness,” according to a push assertion circulated a number of months prior to its premiere. That could just be advertising boilerplate, but it is in sync with a quickly-changing fitness sector that has a short while ago been retooling itself to be extra inclusive, much less abusive, and extra concentrated on entire overall health than looks and overall performance. Or so its proprietors would have you imagine. 

The episodes ended up being filmed just a number of miles from my house in Santa Fe, on a two,four hundred-acre recreation elaborate named Glorieta Experience Camps. The operate finishes on a grassy campus at the centre of the facility. Close by is a huge guy-made lake surrounded by clusters of outbuildings. Piñon- and juniper-studded hills laced with hiking trails rise in all directions less than a cloudless sky. As the contestants race toward the end line, the show’s two new trainers—Steve Cook dinner, 33, a previous bodybuilder from Utah, and Erica Lugo, 33, a one mom who operates EricaFitLove, an on the internet individual-education business—pace them, shouting encouragement.

The Biggest Loser - Season 1
In the second episode, “A Big Reduction,” the two teams discuss to just one yet another even though host Bob Harper watches. (Photograph: Courtesy Ursula Coyote/United states Community)

The show’s new host, former trainer Bob Harper, stands nearby, completely ready to announce the outcomes. At 54, he appears to be like a pillar of overall health, especially for a person who almost died a few of several years ago. In 2017, Harper had a heart attack midworkout at a fitness center in Manhattan. He went into cardiac arrest, but a medical doctor transpired to be at hand and initiated CPR, saving his life. His near simply call, Harper later told me, improved his empathy for The Greatest Loser contestants—after his heart attack, he suggests, he “couldn’t stroll around the block without the need of acquiring winded.” 

In keeping with his newfound feelings of empathy, the revamped exhibit is what he phone calls a “kinder and gentler” version of the first. Absent are the notorious temptations, demeaning stunts like digging by way of piles of doughnuts for a poker chip truly worth $5,000 or being compelled to carry around a slice of cake for a day. When Harper’s not lording more than the weigh-ins with wizened commentary, he gathers the contestants for heartfelt therapy periods. At the end of each and every episode, contestants are no lengthier dismissed by a group vote, as in the first, but are enable go primarily based on the percentage of their weight loss that week. Individuals who are sent home are established up with an aftercare system that incorporates a just one-yr Planet Physical fitness membership, a individual dietitian, and obtain to a assistance group.

When The Greatest Loser reboot aired before this yr, its most striking top quality was not what had changed but how substantially had stayed the similar. I viewed the premiere with a blend of disappointment and dismay as the contestants grunted and cursed their way by way of routines, barfed into buckets, and acquired yelled at by Cook dinner and Lugo. There was virtually no mention of diet regime, strain, slumber, meditation, or any other staples of the wellness revolution. Rather, in the very first episode, the contestants ended up instructed by Harper that they had, variously, Sort two diabetes, slumber apnea, significant cholesterol, and a “90 % chance of dying from an weight problems-related complication.” 

The public reaction to the revised exhibit has been much less than kind. “The Greatest Loser is a vile extra fat-shaming shit-exhibit that science (and human decency) suggests never ever should really have been reborn,” tweeted Yoni Freedoff, a household-medication medical doctor and an weight problems skilled in Ottawa, on January 28. The future day on Jezebel, Kelly Faircloth wrote: “The Greatest Loser is an awesome illustration of how… America treats extra fat bodies as grotesque or tragic failures and exploits them for entertainment.” 

On the New Mexico established, when I asked what had altered and improved given that the first, there was practically a winking acknowledgment from Harper and some others that, hey, this was cable Tv set. While they had abandoned or toned down the show’s uglier antics, why would they change a system that worked? “We have weigh-ins each individual week, just like we did prior to,” Harper instructed me enthusiastically. “I imply, The Greatest Loser without the need of a scale is like American Idol without the need of a singer.” 


When The Greatest Loser debuted in 2004, obesity was being branded as a public-overall health disaster in most designed countries. By the early aughts, two-thirds of the grownup U.S. populace was overweight or obese. In May perhaps 2004, the Planet Health Business released its World Tactic on Diet plan, Actual physical Action, and Health to deal with the “growing burden of noncommunicable disease,” of which being overweight and/or obese was shown as just one of the leading six causes. Considerably hand-wringing ensued about how, exactly, to prevail over this growing pattern, but just one point seemed indisputable: losing weight was paramount.

At the time, diet regime lifestyle was going by way of its very own transformation. Carbs ended up out dietary fat was in. Reduced-carb diet programs had been around for a while—the Atkins Diet plan, probably the greatest regarded, very first appeared in the nineteen seventies. But well-known curiosity in this new paradigm surged after Gary Taubes’s story, “What if It’s All Been a Big Excess fat Lie?,” appeared in The New York Occasions Journal in 2002, difficult, if not upending, the low-extra fat dietary conventional that had been promoted by doctors and health care associations given that the sixties. Other fads ended up also underway—Loren Cordain’s The Paleo Diet plan was published in 2002, followed by The South Beach front Diet plan in 2003—but the pitch was constantly the similar: if we just ate the proper things, like, say, bacon and eggs, the lbs would melt absent and great overall health would return. 

Into the fray came The Greatest Loser. Loads of weight-loss packages teased us with dramatic prior to and after photos, like Excess weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, and System for Lifestyle. But no just one had showcased those people transformations on television while we viewed. As the origin story goes, around 2003, J.D. Roth, at the time a 35-yr-outdated actuality-Tv set producer, approached NBC with the concept of a exhibit about obese contestants reworking on their own into skinny people by burning off enormous quantities of weight. How substantially weight? the community execs needed to know. “A hundred lbs!” Roth instructed them. 

The Biggest Loser - Season 1
Trainers Steve Cook dinner and Erica Lugo check out as Kristi McCart (left) and Kim Emami-Davis (proper) contend in a challenge. (Photograph: Courtesy John Britt/United states Community)

Prevailing health care wisdom advises that the most weight it is acceptable and liable to get rid of is about just one to two lbs a week. But The Greatest Loser members lost substantially more—in some scenarios, extra than thirty lbs in a one week. The dramatic modifications were driven by calorie-limited diet programs and unrelenting exercise. The exhibit enlisted a pair of charismatic trainers—Harper and Jillian Michaels, the fiery fitness coach from Los Angeles—included plenty of true tears, and featured humiliating challenges that made fraternity hazing rituals appear to be quaint.

Critics ended up appalled. “There’s a loathsome, mock-the-fatty undertow to The Greatest Loser,” Gillian Flynn wrote in Leisure Weekly when the very first season premiered. “But what’s the position of producing them squeeze in and out of vehicle home windows also tiny for them? Or forcing them to construct a tower of pastries working with only their mouths?” (When arrived at by Outside, NBC Common declined to remark on past or current criticisms of the exhibit.) 

The position, of training course, was ratings. Audiences, as very well as the show’s members, seemed inclined to shrug off the abuse, specified the end outcomes. The very first season’s winner, Ryan Benson, who worked in DVD creation, lose an astonishing 122 lbs for the duration of the 6-month creation, going from 330 to 208. Some 11 million viewers tuned in to check out the season-one finale, according to Nielsen ratings. The system was a strike and would carry on for seventeen seasons, producing it just one of the longest-jogging actuality shows of all time. 

Points altered in the early 2010s. In 2014, Rachel Frederickson won the fifteenth season after she lost a hundred and fifty five pounds—60 % of her system weight, given that she started out the season at 260 lbs. When she appeared in the finale, she was unrecognizable future to the hologram of herself from the very first episode. According to her new system mass index of eighteen, she was, in truth, clinically underweight. Many viewers ended up aghast. The exhibit seemed to have turn out to be some sort of dim, dystopian comedy. 

Audience numbers had been little by little shrinking given that The Greatest Loser’s peak viewership in 2009, but involving 2014 and 2016, they dropped sharply, from about 6.5 million to 3.6 million average viewers for each episode. Then, in May perhaps 2016, the exhibit was dealt a just about fatal blow. Researchers from the Nationwide Institutes of Health (NIH) released a study that followed 14 previous Greatest Loser contestants more than the training course of 6 several years. The members had obtained back most of the weight they lost on the exhibit, and in some scenarios, they set on even extra. Just about all had designed resting metabolic rates that ended up considerably slower than people of identical size who had not skilled speedy weight loss. Despite the fact that, on average, the members managed to hold off some twelve % of their starting up system weight—which can make the exhibit a good results relative to most diets—the analyze indicated that the kind of serious weight loss hawked by The Greatest Loser was unsustainable. It was also perhaps dangerous, specified the dangers linked with weight fluctuation. (NBC Common declined to remark on the outcomes of the analyze.) 

The analyze may perhaps have emboldened previous contestants to converse out about their encounters on the exhibit. In an incendiary New York Article piece published shortly after the NIH analyze appeared, several contestants alleged that they had been specified medications like Adderall and supplements like ephedra to increase extra fat burning. Reeling from controversy, and with ratings down, The Greatest Loser quietly vanished. There was no cancellation announcement. It just did not return for season eighteen.


The Greatest Loser may perhaps have imploded on its very own accord, but it may perhaps also have experienced collateral injury from a cultural shift that was undermining its total premise. Even as the exhibit was attaining popularity in the mid-aughts, overall health scientists and activists ended up questioning the efficiency of a common diet regime and exercise—long assumed to be the unassailable alternatives to weight difficulties. Perhaps we ended up going about this all wrong probably our system weight was not the situation. The difficulty was our obsession with losing it. 

Uncoupling weight and overall health is a tall purchase. It’s a health care truth that system extra fat can infiltrate organs, especially the liver, where by it disrupts insulin action. Diabetic issues and cardiac-possibility components before long comply with. But that doesn’t constantly take place, and given that at the very least the mid-nineties, there has been enough evidence that there are individuals who, even though still at heightened possibility for cardiovascular disease, are what scientists simply call metabolically wholesome obese—that is, extra fat but in good shape.

The concept that being extra fat may possibly not be so bad—or at the very least much less bad than our frenzied endeavours to be thin—has been around given that the extra fat-acceptance motion of the sixties. Far more a short while ago, movements like Health at Each Measurement, or HAES, which grew quickly for the duration of the nineties, have leveraged a escalating mass of investigation suggesting that system size in itself poses much less overall health dangers than some well-known strategies to weight loss. HAES proponents position out that, even though system extra fat correlates with lousy overall health, the position of weight itself as the sole bring about of long-term disease is exaggerated. What is extra, they argue, weight cycling (losing extra fat and then regaining it) tends to outcome in extra difficulties than remaining at a better but steady weight. Hardcore diet programs and draconian exercise regimens can also lead to consuming conditions, system dysmorphia (hating the way you seem), and risky interventions like working with weight-loss medications. 

“There is these a sharp disconnect involving what we know from scientific investigation and what is transmitted to the common public,” suggests physiologist Lindo Bacon, author of the 2008 guide Health at Each Measurement. “It’s appalling, and I believe The Greatest Loser signifies the worst of it.” HAES has plenty of critics, who contend that the motion makes an attempt to normalize obesity and therefore lousy overall health. But the more substantial position may perhaps be this: losing weight can be so difficult that it often thwarts efforts to create much better habits, like consuming wholesome food items or being often lively.

It took a even though for sector forces to capture on. Many folks still set their have faith in in diet regime and exercise packages to get and continue to be in good shape. But the fantasy of transformation was mostly created by advertising agencies—that is, prior to the govt stepped in to implement extra transparency in advertising. The diet regime sector has been slapping disclaimers on goods given that 1997, when the Federal Trade Commission required Jenny Craig to advise people that dramatic weight loss “wasn’t typical” for those people working with its system. 

But these caveats hardly slowed down the sector. The diet regime business doubled involving 2000 and 2018, according to the sector-investigation company Marketdata. By 2018 it was building around $72 billion a yr. It took a entire new generation to recognize that none of it was doing work.

“Terms like ‘diet’ and ‘weight loss’ just are not cool any more,” suggests Kelsey Miller, author of the memoir Big Woman and creator of the Anti-Diet plan Project column, which released in November 2013 on the on the internet publication Refinery 29. “People ended up completely ready to listen to something that was not about changing their bodies or manipulating their bodies but relatively accepting their bodies. A whole lot of beauty requirements ended up ridiculous, and we ended up starting up to pay attention to this rational aspect of our brain that was declaring, Let’s just fall all this nonsense.” 

The sector began to tilt in the 2010s, and many weight-loss corporations struggled to continue to be related. Dieting had left these a large wake of disordered consuming, strain, and anxiety—along with extra intractable issues like anorexia and bulimia—that many people started out to reject the solution completely. (One well-known modern guide is Caroline Dooner’s The F*ck It Diet plan.) The anti-diet regime motion champions intuitive consuming, which allows natural starvation and satiety indicators guideline foods consumption as opposed to calorie counting and macronutrient experiments. Excess weight Watchers, which primarily created modern-day diet regime lifestyle back in 1963, rebranded itself as WW, a wellness company, in 2018. 

The Biggest Loser - Season 1
A teary Robert Richardson hugs coach Steve Cook dinner at the end of the very first episode. (Photograph: Courtesy John Britt/United states Community)

When the system-positivity motion obtained momentum around 2013, mostly thanks to social media, it unfold the message that training overweight people to dislike on their own as a motivator was a bad concept. One purpose the rebooted Greatest Loser has met these strident blowback is that it overtly reinforces those people prejudices. Shaming and scaring overweight people about their weight has been demonstrated to exacerbate issues like overeating and despair, not solve them. The show also reinforces weight bias. In just one small but very well-publicized 2012 analyze, viewers who viewed only a one episode of The Greatest Loser came absent with improved detrimental viewpoints about large people. In 2019, researchers at Harvard published research that looked at public attitudes toward 6 social factors—age, disability, system weight, race, pores and skin tone, and sexuality—and how they altered more than time. Their outcomes concluded that when it comes to implicit (or rather computerized) biases, system weight was the only classification where by people’s attitudes worsened more than time. Nevertheless, specific (or rather controllable) biases improved in all 6 types. Due to the fact decrease system weight also tends to correlate to better levels of socioeconomic privilege in the United States, extra fat shaming features as a kind of classism.

Even now, there have been noticeable modifications in some public viewpoints, thanks to influencers, versions, athletes, and brand names that have taken a extra weight-neutral situation. When Ashley Graham grew to become the very first as well as-size product to surface on the cover of Sporting activities Illustrated’s swimsuit edition, in 2016, the pics of her ended up heralded as a victory for system positivity. In January, when Jillian Michaels made a comment expressing worry that the pop singer Lizzo might develop Type two diabetes, she was swiftly denounced for “concern trolling” and system shaming. Lizzo responded that she “had no regrets” and “deserved to be satisfied.” She possibly was. She’d just won 3 Grammy Awards and was on the cover of Rolling Stone.


For the duration of my second check out to The Greatest Loser established, I viewed the contestants grunt by way of a Past Probability Workout—the closing extra fat-blasting fitness center session prior to the weekly weigh-in. The significant-depth circuit concerned treadmills, rowing devices, struggle ropes, free weights, and other torture-chamber accoutrements. The trainers barked. The contestants slogged absent. I did not see anyone toss up, but they looked like they ended up about to.

This scene was not a just one-off: routines and fitness issues fill most of the exhibit. It’s quick to see why they’re the most popular. Who wants to check out people try to eat a salad or slumber truly well when you can check out them performing box jumps until they crumple?

If dieting has fallen out of favor in modern several years, so, also, has our irritating and often fruitless makes an attempt to sweat our way to thinness. Actual physical action has many amazing gains and is arguably the very first line of defense when it comes to individual overall health. But investigation has taught us that doing work out is a weak technique for sustainable weight loss. In 2009, in the wake of several popular experiments, a Time journal cover story blared, “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Slim.” In the long run, this was not an argument to quit going to the fitness center, but it was a purpose to quit flagellating yourself in a quest to lose lbs.

Portion of the difficulty is that many people recognize weight loss to be a thermodynamic situation. This may perhaps be basically true—the only way to get rid of weight is to burn up extra calories than you consume—but the biological actuality is extra elaborate. Researchers have shown that the extra aggressively we take weight off, the extra fiercely our system fights to set it back on. One of the insights presented by the 2016 NIH metabolism analyze is that such metabolic effects persist for several years after the initial weight loss the body lowers the resting metabolic price (by as substantially as 600 calories a day in some scenarios) and reduces the creation of leptin, a hormone that will help us really feel total. “The metabolic slowing is like rigidity on a spring,” suggests Kevin Corridor, a senior NIH researcher who led the analyze. “When you pull on the spring to extend it, which is the life-style intervention, the weight loss. The extra weight you get rid of, the extra rigidity there is, pulling you back.”

A well-known idea indicates that we have a system-weight established position that functions like a thermostat: your brain acknowledges a specific weight, or weight vary, and adjusts other physiological programs to push you there. How, when, and how forever that weight is established is a make any difference of substantially debate. It’s rather very well comprehended that genes engage in a sizeable position in analyzing our system mass—some of us only set on weight a lot easier than others—but around the late nineteen seventies, the average weight of Individuals began to climb significantly relative to previous decades. It was not our genes leading to the uptick.

One of the thorniest difficulties in weight problems investigation may perhaps be that we reside in bodies engineered for a extremely unique environment than the just one we inhabit now. Experts often refer to our modern-day environment as an “obesogenic environment,” where by a host of components, like foods provide, technological know-how, transportation, cash flow, strain, and inactivity, lead to weight obtain. For many several years, the weight-loss sector has confident us that, by disciplining ourselves to embrace the proper diet regime and exercise, we could whittle ourselves back down to a extra socially satisfactory weight. But it has failed to produce the kind of overall health results we may possibly be expecting. The actuality is that the twin forces of genetics and environment quickly overwhelm willpower. Our weight may perhaps be intractable for the reason that the issues are so substantially more substantial than we recognize.

When I talked to coach Erica Lugo on The Greatest Loser established, she seemed much less fixated on weight loss than she’s portrayed to be in the exhibit. “The fitness sector is so hung up on being a specific size or acquiring a 6-pack, and I’ve struggled with that on the exhibit a few of situations,” she instructed me. “Fitness is a way of thinking. I want people to know that, and I want everyone to really feel approved. I do not want them to be humiliated or really feel like they can’t do items or even attempt.”

A number of weeks later, even though I was observing early episodes, something shocking transpired. While I thoroughly comprehended how the exhibit can manipulate my emotions, I still located myself caught up in the stories. I acquired misty when four hundred-pound Robert Richardson was despatched house in the very first episode for the reason that he had “only” managed to fall 13 lbs in a week. When Megan Hoffman, who’d been struggling given that the start off, started out flinging tractor tires like a beast in the second episode, I was thrilled. By episode seven (of ten), the exhibit hits its psychological peak when the five remaining contestants get online video messages from house. The stories are human and relatable—a son with a recovering-addict mom, a distant husband seeking his wife to “get wholesome.” The message is clear: attaining weight may perhaps be as substantially psychological as it is actual physical.

Even with The Greatest Loser’s wellness head phony, and irrespective of its woefully outdated tone and thinly veiled extra fat shaming, I now comprehended why, for its hundreds of thousands of followers, the exhibit was a beacon of hope. How many of them, when faced with unrelenting negativity about their weight, yearned for inspiration and determination, for company, for the belief that they could reclaim ownership of their bodies?

I was not sure how to reconcile this in our bold new environment of woke fitness. How could you endorse a exhibit conveying the concept that self-truly worth was tied to BMI? On the other hand, something that prompted favourable modify, no make any difference how tiny, seemed like a stage in the proper course. Weight problems never ever warrants discrimination, but acceptance and compassion shouldn’t eclipse concern for health dangers either—a modern report in The New England Journal of Drugs concluded that, by 2030, just about fifty % of Individuals will be obese. 

About a month after the exhibit wrapped, I talked on the telephone with contestant Jim DeBattista, the youth soccer coach. I puzzled how his encounter had been and how he was performing now that he’d been house for a even though. “It’s going fantastic!” he claimed cheerfully. “My major target was to make this work after the contest was more than. I understood I was not going to be dwelling in a bubble. But so significantly, I haven’t set any weight on, and I’m consuming extra and doing work out much less.” 

I asked what had been his most important takeaway. “You have to surrender your outdated habits,” he claimed. “The outdated me led me to be practically four hundred lbs. I had to entirely modify who I was, and the exhibit aided me do that. I cannot lie. Now when I see a Dairy Queen, I strike the gas.”

The new Greatest Loser wants us to imagine that the journey of transformation is inner and person, that we can shape our bodies to our will. But what if it is not us we want to transform but the environment we have developed? Authentic wellness—regular motion, wholesome foods, social relationship, obtain to overall health care, and top quality relaxation and relaxation—can’t be at war with the way we reside. It has to be baked into our life, our educational facilities, our work, and our towns. It may perhaps not reduce us from acquiring heavier, but it would absolutely make us more healthy. And that would be a major get for everyone.

Guide Illustration: Julia Bernhard

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