The Biggest Loser: Dangerous Weight Loss

By Mike Howard

1294-the biggest loser.jpgWhile there is no clear definition of what constitutes “unsafe” weight loss, it’s probably fair to say that “The Biggest Loser” flirts with that blurry line at the best of times. Add some additional measures to the already-extreme methods imparted on TBL contestants and you have a recipe for a potentially dangerous situation.At least a couple of Biggest Loser contestants have admitted to intentionally dehydrating themselves to accelerate their progress.

Therein lies the most fundamental problem with TBL – using scale weight as the sole determinant of success and hence victory. This obviously leaves things open to all sorts of behind-the-scenes tactics to shed more weight. Moreover these are just a couple of examples, but who knows what kind of pills, laxatives or other adjunct measures contestants are trying.

In the world of reality TV, drama matters – the more extreme the weight loss, the greater the drama, the greater the ratings. Also, severe caloric restriction + intense exercise very make people grumpy – there’s your built-in drama right there.

When it comes to contestants, $250K is a good chunk of change. Add to that, the possibility of endorsements, book deals, magazine covers and suddenly the stakes are pretty high.

To quote this article

Drama is one thing when you’re vying for the attention of a washed up hip hop star, airing your dirty laundry, eating bugs, or repelling down skyscrapers, but it is entirely different ethically when health risks are involved.”

Nobody wants to see a show where people lose 2 pounds a week on a sensible exercise and nutritional program.

It isn’t uncommon for contestants to lose 15lbs in a single week. And we have to remember that TBL contestants are pre-screened and medically monitored throughout their extreme regimen.

For the average Joe/Jane, the Biggest Loser ups the ante of weight loss expectation. We may not have a ton of money to gain from being thinner but fitting into a wedding dress, going to a sunny destination and other occasions that call for fast weight loss can spark some risky behavior.

Exercising in heat or other dehydrating methods can cause heart problems and potentially fatal electrolyte imbalances. Gallstones, nutritional imbalances, irritability and constipation are also common in very rapid weight loss over the course of several weeks.

At the very least, extreme weight loss methods don’t last.

Source: The Faster Times


  1. surato ST

    I think TBL is only happening in the world of television, if for at home practice will be very risky for the balance of our body’s metabolism, all that instant results are definitely not good, it would be better if the stages in a specified period between 1-3 years …

  2. calie

    People must approach weight loss with the attitude that it must be a permanent accomplishment. They must also understand that rapid weight loss can be unsafe and usually doesn’t last. I hope more people understand that they must commit to a new healthier lifestyle if they are to successfully lose weight and keep it off.

    Personal Trainer Chicago

  3. pachamamajs

    I agree that some of their tactics on the Biggest Loser are dangerous just to make good TV. Does anyone know how the taping works? Are they at the ranch for 12-17 weeks without any breaks? Then they’re on their own for three months and then they shoot the final? It’s confusing because they say they tape up to a year but how do these contestants hold a job?

  4. Mary Kriss

    I’m a female that weights 120 pounds and I’m 5’7″ so no I am not fat. I find this show so offensive on so many levels. The only positive thing is it may motivate some obese viewers to go to the gym and watch their diet. However, it’s unrealistic to force Marine Corps STYLE workouts on people who have had minimal movement for years. Also, I witnessed one woman fall and break her nose. The show got upset with her son for paying attention to her (HIS OWN MOTHER). Instead they advised him to ignore his bleeding mother while she’s rushed to the emergency room and instead TO just work out. How many of us can ignore a loved family member bleed profusely from their face after having fallen on their face?!!? It was so upsetting to watch. In addition, fitness Pros have complained about the program!!

  5. Becky

    I agree with you Melanie. It has always bothered me how much the contestants are required to exercise, and that they are sometimes loosing 10 pounds per week… not healthy at all… and scary too- means they are most likely going to gain it all back, and then some once they stop this unhealthy routine. I think that a good weight loss plan includes good wholesome foods and moderate daily moderate exercise (45 min./day). Sounds more realistic that is for sure. For instance, I like the plan that is depicted in Janice Stanger’s latest book, “The Perfect Formula Diet: How to Lose Weight and Get Healthy Now with Six Kinds of Whole Foods.”

  6. Melanie Thomassian

    Yes, good point. I suppose if they gain it all back again that’s worse, but hopefully they learn enough skills from the show to avoid too much regain.

  7. Marie

    I appreciate your thinking; I would love to see a “where are they now” expo… but how much worse off could they be than weighing over 400 lbs??

  8. Melanie Thomassian

    I agree with you that it gives obese people hope when there’s so much negativity around. I’m just concerned about how contestants do when they get home–what if they continue with their unhealthy weight loss methods–does anyone check to see how they are 2 years down the line for example?

  9. Marie

    Baloney… I watched the season finale last night, and you can’t tell each of those people aren’t better off. I think most viewers are able to understand that weight won’t come off that fast at home, BUT it does at least give the obese a chance to really believe that they CAN be thin…. that their bodies will let them. How many obese people do you know who have lost weight? I realize there are some out there, but I don’t know any. Most fat people stay fat their whole lives…how motivating is that if you have 100lbs to lose, let alone 2 or 300?? People have to be able to “imagine” themselves thin first.

  10. Ann

    You LOSE weight – then maybe if you LOSE weight, your pants will be LOOSE.

  11. Melanie Thomassian

    As Mike says, “Nobody wants to see a show where people lose 2 pounds a week on a sensible exercise and nutritional program.” — but this is what people should be watching, perhaps then it would sink in, rather than presenting the idea that you need to do something radical to lose weight.

    These shows should be watched as mere entertainment value only in my opinion!

  12. O.

    I have 2 comments about this…

    #1 I watch those docureality (is that a word? well less sensational but still entertaining) shows on TLC where morbidly obese people loose weight, and it seems that they also loose pretty fast.

    Now these people aren’t competing for prize money, rather they are just being followed around by TLC as they go to an obesity clinic or loose weight by other means. But I just figured it is what happens when you have a lot of weight to loose and take drastic measures.

    #2 As for TBL, again I figured that this is what happens when someone who has a lot to loose takes drastic steps. And also it is what happens in the controled enviroment with the trainers, medical staff, and so on. I also thought there was a little time lapse editing envolved because the people that loose the most look so different at the finale than they do at the last taping on set.

  13. Snack-Girl

    I wish that the show didn’t have the money aspect – and they just helped 16 obese people lose weight. Isn’t that enough of a gift? Then, we wouldn’t have to worry if they are hurting themselves to get those numbers.

  14. Jody - Fit at 52

    Interesting question… and on the Amazing Race too! At least we do know that TBL contestants are surrounded by docs BUT it still has not helped some on every season that seem to get hurt pretty bad. I think they push them past their limits in regards to what their body & joints can handle with all that weight on them.

  15. Jody - Fit at 52

    Spectra, you make the valid points about going from 4000+++ calories a day to way less & yes, exercise becomes their job on the show. I think they have done better in the newer seasons making it clear that the contestants are doing way more than a normal person would or could do at home & that is why they go home to see how they do…. BUT, the money is an incentive to do it in a more unhealthy way, that is for sure.

    Yes, weight is definitely not the end all of this game but at least they have them doing weight resistance which many people still want to shy away from & is very important for the bones & more.

    Great points Spectra.

  16. Spectra

    People forget that the contestants on TBL are in a very controlled situation. These are very obese people that are become “professional weight-losers”. They have a nutritionist making all their food and a personal trainer 24/7. They do 6 hours of lighter/moderate cardio per day, plus an additional 1-2 hours of strength training and an hour of high intensity cardio a day. So yeah, if working out becomes your job, you’ll probably lose weight. The trainers are trying to create the maximum calorie deficit that they can so they get those seriously huge weight loss numbers, especially at the beginning. If you take a 400 lb person who normally eats 4000 calories a day and start them on a 1400 calorie/day diet and have them exercising 1000+ calories a day, of course they’re going to lose 15-20 lbs in a week.

    I still think it sucks that they use weight alone as a guide for who wins the money. I mean, shouldn’t they use something a little more accurate, like measurements and body fat %? Weight is definitely not everything, that’s for sure. And if the contestants are downing diuretics and living on asparagus and water just before the weigh-in just so they can be thinner, that’s pretty sad…it’s definitely NOT healthy.

  17. Paul @ WorkoutBOX

    What I can’t understand, is why people want to make such a spectacle of themselves and is money more of a motivator than a long healthy life? Obviously it is, otherwise they probably wouldn’t do it. I’m in favour of a little competition to help motivation, but TBL just takes it to the extreme and promotes very bad practice when it comes to healthy weight loss.

  18. John La Puma MD

    Yes, it is different ethically to present potential health problems to people with a huge current health problem on a reality tv show, than to send fit others through, for example, The Amazing Race.

    The ethics question is: do the contestants have a fully informed understanding of what they will be asked to do, and can they make a completely volitional choice?

    In other words, can they give informed consent to participate in reality TV?
    John La Puma, MD

  19. Mike Howard

    Great points, Ann.

    I ran out of room in my post to mention what you point out in terms of the luxury of a full-time support staff. Also agree that really heavy people can lose pretty substantial amounts of weight – especially in the early going and still be in a safe zone.

  20. Ann

    While some contestants might resort to unhealthy methods to lose weight, it’s obviously not going to be sustainable over the 12 week period they may be there, not to mention the several months they spend at home losing weight. For sustained weight loss, they actually have to change their habits. And 15 pound weight losses tend to come from contestants that are incredibly large losing weight in the initial weeks. It’s not hard to lose 15 pounds if you start at 400 and then suddenly start eating right and exercising. Anyone using laxatives or dehydrating themselves long term will not be able to continue to see weight loss. I think the major problem with this show is that it puts these people into a situation that most of us don’t have the luxury of – 24-hours devoted to weight loss with personal trainers, dieticians, etc. The average person can’t expect to see those results with a half hour on an elliptical.

  21. cari from ditch diets

    Mike great post, I couldn’t agree more and there are a few other issues about the Biggest Loser that I’ve written about over at my ditch diets live light site. I think that what they set a gullible public up for is failure on a large scale. And go back and do some research…. how many of those biggest losers really maintain those losses after the glare of tv has faded? How many of them can really keep up that frenetic pace? Yes, THIS is what is held up to as an example of ‘how to do it’.