21 February 2010

The "Biggest Loser[s]?" All of us.

The more I look at it, the more one of TV’s more popular shows raises issues that go more than skin deep.
NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” is a game show that takes obese contestants away to a health ranch and rewards the person who loses the highest percentage of weight with $250,000. During this time, contestants are shown how to work out and eat a healthy diet. While I applaud the thought of an out-of-control person taking the courageous step to change their lives, I think “Loser” shortchanges both them and us, and here is why.
The scenario, while appearing ideal, is far from it. Weight gain happens over time. As someone who used to be 230 pounds, I can tell you that such a thing doesn’t happen overnight. The habits that created the situation are also complex, and go beyond mere intake of food. For many people (myself included) food is more than mere sustenance – it is a reward, an indulgence, a painkiller. I imagine that many of the people on the show have the same issue. So how is it healthy to merely help them lose weight and not address the underlying issues? It’s akin to having someone shoot themselves only to have a doctor stop the bleeding and let them out of the hospital. In the end, the old habits come back, as we’ve seen with former winners who gained all of their weight back when they return to the non-structured environment of the real world.
The real world isn’t like the highly-structured environment on the ranch. The ranch wouldn’t feature brownies in the break room during a highly-stressful day at the office. The ranch wouldn’t feature friends or family whom, not understanding you goals, gently cajole you into eating pizza. In the end, any sustainable weight loss program comes from within, not from a ranch with two health trainers encouraging you to spend a few more minutes running on the treadmill while your 400-pound bulk hits the footpads (does this strike anyone else as a really, really bad idea? Shouldn’t they walk?)
I’m not the only person to question the healthiness of the show’s sometimes-amazing weight loss (as high as 15 pounds in a week). A New York Times article in November 2009: ‘Kai Hibbard, the runner-up from the third season, has "written on her MySpace blog and elsewhere that she and other contestants would drink as little water as possible in the 24 hours before a weigh-in" and would "work out in as much clothing as possible" when the cameras were off. Two weeks after the show ended, Hibbard had gained about 31 pounds, mostly from staying hydrated.’ Also in the same article, Dr. Charles Burant, director of the Michigan Metabolomics and Obesity Center, was quoted as saying he was waiting for the “first person to have a heart attack.” I can’t disagree.
The popularity of this show also makes me wonder what TV audiences have become. It used to be that audiences were treated to some somewhat intelligent programs, like “Cheers,” Seinfeld,” “MASH,” etc. Now, one of the most popular shows on television focus on watching morbidly obese people putting their lives at risk for weight loss and a financial reward? It sounds sadistic to me. Do we have nothing better to do on Sunday nights but watch people who shouldn’t be engaging in heavy exercise in the first place cry into cameras about how hard things are? Do I really want to see people collapse under the strain of physical exercise they shouldn’t be doing in the first place? Pure freudenshade.
Also, in an age where one in three adults in the United States is considered obese (sciencedaily.com), NBC has obviously found a show that taps into the cultural zeitgeist. While one could make the argument that “Loser” could serve as an inspiration for people to lose weight (I don’t deny it could happen), I could also see the opposite happening. I could see someone saying, “If only I had a few weeks/months at the ranch, I could really do some good. But I don’t, so, well, I won’t bother trying.” Again, sustainable real-life weight loss doesn’t happen in a matter of 10 TV episodes. It happens over a much longer period of time, and only when some of the issues that caused the problem in the first place are taken care of. But “Loser” doesn’t address this. Instead, contestants work out six hours a day and eat a closely-monitored food regimen – something nearly impossible to do or sustain in the real world.
I applaud anyone who tries to take control of a weight problem through healthy means. But “Loser” doesn’t strike me as something very healthy. It strikes me as a game show masquerading as some sort of holy quest to help people who have let themselves go. If contestants are able to use this to jump-start a healthier life, more power to them. But from what I’ve seen of past winners on this show, the results are fleeting (Erik Chopin, Ryan Johnson).
We should be careful not to confuse health with entertainment.

No comments: