Americans love weight loss shows like The Biggest Loser, yet the obesity epidemic rages on. It's a deeply confusing situation, much like when the nation was obsessed with Project Runway and America's Next Top Model. After multiple seasons, most of us still hadn't learned to make skirts out of trash bags or smile with our eyes!
The Associated Press notes that there are about a dozen diet shows on the air today, from Shedding For The Wedding to Dance Your Ass Off, and each advertises products that are part of a multi-billion dollar weight-loss industry. The shows "should offer plenty of inspiration to Americans trying to slim down" — so why are we growing fatter by the day?
According to the piece, the problem is that it takes years for the public to enact health changes:
Dr. Terry Schaack, medical director of the California Health & Longevity Institute, where "Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss" participants do an introductory "boot camp," says there can be a long delay between awareness and action.
"You will see nothing in national figures for probably eight to 10 years after a dramatic incident occurs," he says. "The U.S. Surgeon General went out and told people to quit smoking, I believe it was in '67. A hoard of people quit smoking, and the incidence of heart disease went down 15 or 20 years later. It takes that long."
Biggest Loser is popular, but its development in 2004 can't really be classified as a "dramatic incident." And a new spate of diet-centric reality shows isn't exactly on on par with the Surgeon General telling people to quit smoking.
JD Roth, a producer behind both Biggest Loser and Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition insists that the shows actually are helping to combat the obesity problem, despite there being no data that supports this. He says, "The first step to changing some systemic problem in society is awareness and I think (weight) awareness is at an all-time high."
The country may be more self-conscious about weight than ever before, but we're also getting that message from ads for diet foods, TV shows and films that only feature slender people, and the tabloids' recurring "Best and Worst Beach Bodies" feature. It's hard to think of an element of pop culture that isn't sending the message that being obese is unacceptable.
These programs have no effect on obesity rates because they're mainly about entertainment. They present a smattering of health tidbits to give the illusion that they're less sleazy than the latest Jersey Shore knock off or the 42nd season of The Real World. Roth says he created Makeover for people who were too big for Loser. "My focus is to tell their story and to help them change their life," he says. "If they change their life, the audience watches and the ratings are high." Note that he didn't say "and the audience starts eating more fruits and vegetables."
People want to see characters undergo some type of transformation, and there's no more obvious change than seeing a person lose 100+ pounds. We get to know who cast members are as they struggle to do push-ups and are asked to complete unrealistic food-related challenges, but the shows still emphasize that the most important thing about them is their ability to lose weight. Skinny people are worthy of having their drunken brawls and insipid relationships broadcast, but fat people only get to be on reality TV if they're trying to slim down.
Diet shows talk about inspiring people to exercise and eat healthier, but those lifestyle changes take time. If you're hearing the message that you only count if you're slim, you may get the idea that you should lose weight as quickly as possible — perhaps by trying one of the fad diets advertised on TV! The medium definitely has the ability to educate people, but no one's watching Biggest Loser to learn more about health.