Why The Biggest Losers Become The Biggest Gainers
Metabolic adaptation and being well and fit
Our neighbors, a “snowbird” family from Minnesota, recently went on a 10-day cabbage soup diet. They all lost weight, most averaging about a pound a day during the course of the strict, low-calorie diet.
They are presently in the process of gaining it all back: and perhaps, even more.
The scientific evidence seems clear: 20th century style dieting produces short-term weight loss and long-term weight gain.
You’ve probably heard about the NIH study that showed that 13 out of 14 former contestants from The Biggest Loser had regained all the weight they’d lost, and some were even heavier.
The study only covered 14 people, contestants from a single season, but the metabolic changes they experienced have also been documented in other, larger studies that identified and confirmed the phenomenon of metabolic adaptation.
Metabolic adaptation is a natural mechanism that our bodies use to keep us alive. When we diet, our body perceives it as “starvation,” and adjusts our metabolism downward. In wilderness or hunter-gatherer conditions, this natural tendency is very important.
In today’s world? Not so much.
How Long Is Our Metabolism Slower After Dieting?
The NIH study showed that The Biggest Loser contestants’ resting metabolic rates had slowed an average of 610 calories a day by the end of the competition. After six years, the resting metabolic rates of the contestants was 704 calories a day less than what would be expected as a baseline.
Even though the contestants had gained all of the weight they had lost back, and some, even more, making them even heavier than when they started out and would be expected to burn more calories as larger people, their metabolisms were significantly slower. Even more shocking: the Biggest Loser contestants who hadn’t regained all of their weight, just most of it, had even slower metabolisms than those who had regained all of their lost weight.
How Can Anyone Lose Weight If Dieting Doesn’t Work?
The main problem with traditional dieting and weight loss programs is speed, intensity, and lack of nutrition. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the problem with The Biggest Loser. The show isolated contestants on a ranch, enforcing a strict regimen of dieting, stress, and physical activity.
The Biggest Loser competition lasts 30 weeks, and during this time, contestants are expected to lose over 100 pounds, an average of three pounds per week. The contest’s all-time winner lost 264 pounds, an average of almost 9 pounds per week. Many contestants reported weight loss of over 10 pounds, and up to 30 pounds a week during the initial weeks of the contest.
The Biggest Problems With The Biggest Loser
The Biggest Loser ran for 17 seasons on NBC. The show left the air when the NIH study revealed the long-term weight gain of former contestants, although it returned for a single, poorly-received season in 2020. Former contestants have also sued the show because of inhumane treatment. The Biggest Loser has received well-deserved public criticism for its retrograde attitude toward fitness and health, fat-shaming, and horrific “challenges.” One contestant was forced to eat 37 donuts in three minutes, then mocked on television.
Turning The Biggest Problems Into Biggest Advantages
How fat are people these days? Being overweight is so normalized that our neighbors asked if Bruce was ill, because he is now of normal weight for his height. He has lost over 50 pounds since we moved to Florida — three years ago. And I have lost 30 pounds. Both of us are of normal, healthy weight for our height.
The Biggest Loser and similar diet and workout programs — any “traditional” weight loss program — will never work. And, it is related to the way our bodies have evolved to protect us against starving to death during lean times: harsh winters and long droughts.
With all of its emphasis on the scale, fat-shaming, extreme workouts, and low-calorie diets, The Biggest Loser — which employed some of the most famous “fitness” gurus like Jillian Michaels — used every artificial trick in the book to get massive, rapid weight loss results.
Kai Hibbard, a Biggest Loser contestant from Season 3, has become a powerful activist for wellness and health. She broke the show’s non-disclosure clause in telling the public about the many unhealthy tactics the show uses to enforce rapid, severe weight loss. “My season had a lot of Franken-foods: I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter spray, Kraft fat-free cheese, Rockstar Energy Drinks, Jell-O,” Kai said.
Biggest Loser contestants were under severe stress, isolated from their families, required to do unsafe, extreme workouts, and were often mocked and humiliated by trainers, both on screen and off. They experienced calorie-restricted, nutrition-poor processed food diets, as if what one eats has no bearing on weight loss — yes, the old obviously false and wrong “calories in-calories out” weight loss “theory.” Many contestants gained over 30 pounds back — in the single week following the show’s conclusion. This, most believe, was simply from becoming hydrated again after weeks of dehydration.
Simply doing the opposite of The Biggest Loser will result in better health and slow, effective, long-term weight loss:
Get enough sleep
Do moderate, safe exercise
Avoid obesogenic, processed foods of any type
Eat health-promoting foods that are right for you
None of the foods that Kai says she was given on The Biggest Loser are health-promoting: quite the opposite. Most on her list are microbiome bombs that probably kill positive, health-promoting microbes in our gut and feed obesogenic, “bad” gut microorganisms.
I think, also, stop worrying about calories at all, but do avoid processed foods: consume them only in serious moderation. What is serious moderation? Only you can decide for yourself, but for me? It’s less than once a month.
And please, understand, once you stop eating toxic processed foods and follow a simple, healthful diet (whichever one you choose — which is right for you), your hunger levels will also change because you will be receiving the nutrition that your body needs. Your body includes about a kilo of microbes that help you digest your food and help maintain homeostasis in body, mind and spirit. Some of the “bad” ones encourage “false hunger” and send chemical signals to your brain to encourage you to eat the foods that they like, but which cause inflammation and unwanted weight gain.
It’s not about your “willpower,” much of it can be about the strong willpower of gut microbes to eat the foods they like!
The Biggest Loser is terrible. It’s a textbook example of “What not to do” for health, wellness, and long-term spiritual, mental, and physical happiness.
Be Happy Right Now
Be happy with who you are right now — but also love yourself enough to understand that what you eat absolutely matters. The single greatest correlation between the obesity epidemic and our lifestyles and diets is the rise of massive amounts of processed foods, including diet programs, diet/sugar free foods, and prepared, low-fat (high sugar) “healthy” meals — you cannot eat fast food or anything out of the center aisles of the grocery store and be truly healthy.
“If we just ate like when we were kids,” I said to Bruce the other day, “we would see and live in a very different world.”
More about wellness and weight loss …
Fothergill, Erin and Juen Guo, Lilian Howard et. al., “Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after “The Biggest Loser” competition,” Obesity, May 2, 2016, url: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4989512/
Gilbert, Sophie. “The Retrograde Shame of The Biggest Loser,” The Atlantic, January 29, 2020, url: https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/01/the-retrograde-shame-of-the-biggest-loser/605713/
Heil, Nick. “There Are No Winners With ‘The Biggest Loser’,” Outside Online, March 26, 2020, url: https://www.outsideonline.com/health/wellness/the-biggest-loser-reboot/
Sweeney, Alison. “Alison Sweeney’s ‘Heart Broke’ When ‘Biggest Loser’ Contestant Ate 37 Donuts,” People.com, September 28, 2011, url: https://people.com/tv/biggest-loser-contestant-eats-37-donuts-in-three-minutes/