Surprisingly, TV Reality Show Not Healthiest Path To Weight Loss

In news that should shock exactly no one, being on The Biggest Loser may not be a great way to achieve healthy, lasting weight loss. But it is a great way to pee blood!

Edward Wyatt of The New York Times writes that Ryan Benson, who lost 122 pounds to win The Biggest Loser's first season, has gained the weight back and "thinks he has been shunned by the show because he publicly admitted that he dropped some of the weight by fasting and dehydrating himself to the point that he was urinating blood." Indeed, show officials have tried to keep other former contestants from talking to the press, and trainer Jillian Michaels says, "Contestants can get a little too crazy and they can get too thin. [...] It's just part of the nature of reality TV." However, Dr. Charles Burant of the University of Michigan says "the nature of reality TV" may not be compatible with the nature of, you know, health:

I have had some patients who want to do the same thing, and I counsel them against it. [...] I think the show is so exploitative. They are taking poor people who have severe weight problems whose real focus is trying to win the quarter-million dollars.

The gimmick of many reality shows is to take something that usually happens slowly — like finding a spouse or losing a large amount of weight — and speed it up for the benefit of the audience. Producers shoehorn whole periods of people's lives into a handful of TV hours, and it's no wonder that they squeeze out a little blood in the process. Gawker's Hamilton Nolan says that rather than watching The Biggest Loser, overweight people should "eat a few hundred calories less than you burn every day; exercise for no more than an hour five days a week, with a sensible mix of interval cardio workouts and basic weight training; lose a couple pounds a week; continue until satisfied." But for a lot of people, it isn't really that simple, and it would be kind of nice to see a TV show that promoted Health At Every Size. Jill at Feministe says, "a real show about health - where in the end there would still be some healthy fat people and some healthy thin people and some healthy in-between people - would make really boring TV," and she may be right. The truth is, what entertains us is rarely what's good for us, and the subtext of Jillian Michaels's statement is that the nature of reality TV is to exploit suffering and pain.

I don't want to be all get-off-my-lawn-y — really, criticizing reality television is so passé it's almost retro — but I will say that back in the days of scripted programming people only pretended to do things that were bad for them. Now we get to watch real people — people who, in the case of The Biggest Loser, probably feel marginalized by society — abuse themselves for free. It's probably too late to turn back the clock on this phenomenon, but it's not too late to call it what it is: a cheap way of exploiting the vulnerable. Not to mention a shitty way to lose weight.

On ‘The Biggest Loser,' Health Can Take Back Seat [NYT]
Shocker: "The Biggest Loser" Promotes Unhealthy Weight Loss Practices [Feministe]
Biggest Loser: Basically Killing Fat People For Your Amusement [Gawker]