Heavy Duty

By Anna Sachse

Posted September 17, 2009 in Mind Body Spirit

I despise all reality television, except for Project Runway, Top Chef and The Biggest Loser. I like the first two because they actually have reasonably good production value and involve two activities—fashion design and cooking—that people would actually do. As for The Biggest Loser, I hate the music and the cheesy scenes with the contestants’ families, but I’m still obsessed with it, largely because, once again, losing weight through diet and exercise is something people can and should do.


But is doing it Biggest Loser-style actually all that good for you? The contestants definitely need to lose a lot of weight and keep it off if they want to fend off disease, get pregnant, be able to walk, not die, etc. But is it helpful or even healthy to lose so much weight so quickly? And should we really be treating life-or-death weight loss like a game/competition? 


A while back, I read a decidedly anti-Biggest Loser article by an expert I seriously respect, Nancy Clark, MS, RD, a famed sports nutritionist and nutrition author. Her opinion? “It’s terrible! It’s horrible! It’s abusive! I also feel like throwing my shoe at the TV.” Her problem with the show is that she feels all the lessons it teaches are about deprivation, denial, starvation and punishment: “Exercise is akin to torture. Food is the fattening enemy.” Losing weight is the sole indicator of success, rather than kindness or personal growth: “Losing weight does not make anyone a better father, son, mother or daughter. Same person, same problems.”


Despite my enjoyment in watching The Biggest Loser, I see her point. Making exercise painful means you will be less likely to stick with it, and starving is just plain sad. In addition, most doctors and dieticians (the ones who aren’t money-hungry quacks) agree that slow and steady weight loss is the key to permanent weight-loss. We achieve it through a combination of exercise we enjoy and a practical diet that incorporates nutrient-rich foods as well as a few tasty treats every once in a while. Cut or burn just 500 calories per day and you will lose a pound a week, which adds up to 52 pounds in a year! It really is that simple—you just have to find the motivation to get up off the couch and move or put down that burger when you’re full.


Which is where I beg to differ a little from Nancy Clark. I have friends who settle in to watch The Biggest Loser with a giant bowl of ice cream, but I do think there is something about such shows (see also Celebrity Fit Club and Dance Your Ass Off) that inspires us to slim down. I usually end up doing sit-ups, tricep dips and push-ups while I watch. And I have actually powered my way through the end of a run by thinking, “If Tara (from Season 7) can pull a car, I can run four miles.” Many of the contestants gain weight back, but others do keep it off while maintaining a more balanced exercise-and-diet routine. Competitions that mimic the show have cropped up all over the country, in gyms, health insurance plans, workplaces and towns. We are the No. 1 fattest First World nation, so I say, power to ’em.


The verdict: Understand that extreme dieting and exercise aren’t healthy or normal and should only be conducted under the supervision of a doctor. Know that being skinny doesn’t equal happiness. Think long-term and make health your goal. Remember that you can start changing right this very second. Right now. Do it today.


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