The unreality of reality weight loss shows!
These shows help motivate and educate obese and overweight people to make the required life changes. This can only be a positive thing, right?
Shows like the Biggest Loser attract a target audience, with hundreds of thousands of overweight and obese people viewing them. This is an audience that struggles with diet and exercise, and may not have the support mechanisms or correct information needed to start changing their behaviours.
Unfortunately not! The main problem with reality weight loss TV is that there’s absolutely no reality in it. The producers are more interested in entertainment and viewer numbers than educating the population. Participants are supported by doctors, psychologists, personal trainers, chefs and dietitians who give specific and constant instructions on what to eat and do. They completely immerse themselves in the weight loss process, often exercising for four to six hours daily without the reality of real life including work, family etcetera. Drastic measures are taken to obtain the shocking physical changes and this is unrealistic. And let’s not forget that they have a 'quarter-of-a-million-dollar prize’ to motivate them.
Aside from failing to provide the knowledge and skills required to lose and maintain a healthy weight, weight loss shows actually misinforms viewers and this hinders their efforts to obtain a healthier weight. Not only do they exaggerate the amount of weight lost in a week (by filming over a longer period), they also encourage unhealthy strategies before weigh-ins such as dehydrating themselves or fasting for days. This demoralises our pursuit of weight loss rather than encourage us to lose weight. Viewers constantly see participants aiming to lose 5, 10, 15, or more pounds per week and think they should be losing roughly the same amount. This discourages many individuals because they think that losing 1 or 2 pounds a week (a safe recommendation) is worthless. How many times have you heard someone complaining about ‘only losing 1 pound’? Our weight loss expectations have been completely misled. Even if education isn’t high on the agenda of these shows, surely misleading information could be avoided.
Furthermore, previously sedentary contestants endure too much intensity, too soon and are shown doing explosive, full body exercises. Not only is this dangerous for the contestants but it may also give some viewers the impression that a morbidly obese person should be able to hop on a treadmill and perform an all-out sprint. These are high-risk and high-impact activities and individuals who have obvious risk issues, orthopaedic concerns and many other considerations to contend with are being encouraged to complete them. These shows have the potential to teach contestants and audience about the components of well-rounded exercise but they fail to do this.
The constant screaming and yelling from trainers and public humiliation when goals aren’t reached can also leave participants with very poor body image and feeling badly about their effort, mental/emotional status and progress. Comments such as “So unless you faint, puke or die, keep walking,” from a trainer of a well-known weight loss show is unhelpful. Instead of acting as a motivator to viewers, studies show that people are less inclined to want to exercise or expect it to be enjoyable after watching a 7.5 minute workout on the show (1).
Seven months after completing The Biggest Loser the participants’ metabolisms slowed by an average of 504 more calories than would have been expected simply as a consequence of losing weight (2). The researchers have stated that: “Unfortunately, fat free mass preservation did not prevent the slowing of metabolic rate during active weight loss, which may predispose to weight regain unless the participants maintain high levels of physical activity or significant caloric restriction.”
Finally, the tendencies of such shows to display obesity as a consequence of personal laziness and gluttony can lead viewers to dramatically increase their own hateful and negative opinions towards those with obesity. Results from a study by Domoff and colleagues showed that viewers of The Biggest Loser had significantly higher levels of dislike of overweight individuals (3) and more strongly believed that weight is controllable after the exposure. (3,4) This echos the shows message that if you want something badly enough you can make it happen, and if you can’t make it happen it’s because you’re a failure and lazy.
TV shows, no matter the topic, are all about entertainment. They are rarely about education- their aim is the shock factor, enticing people to tune in the following week. Not surprisingly, the shock factor needs to increase as the seasons continue. This leads to even more drastic strategies, making the problem worse.
Generally speaking, the quicker the weight comes off, the quicker it will go back on. It takes time to gain weight and it will take time to successfully lose and maintain weight loss. Stop expecting to lose weight quickly and take a slower approach. Exercising for at least 30 minutes daily along with proper nutrition habits can have a significant impact on long-term health and weight loss. Losing 1 – 2 pounds (0.5 – 1kg) a week is a healthy and desirable target and this is what we should be encouraging.
Written by Ailbhe Bhreathnach