Flavour of the Week

“The Biggest Loser” and a Culture of Weight Bias


Reality TV doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. Whether you agree or disagree with this burgeoning field of entertainment, everyone seems to have their favourite reality guilty pleasure (whether they admit to it or not!). For some it’s watching women vie for a man’s affection, for others it is watching the trials and tribulations of contestants trying to lose weight. We all know that the media has tremendous influence on perceived beauty ideals, but we typically associate media internalization and its (negative) effect on self-esteem with stick-thin models and buff actors. But what about the other side of the coin?

How does the staggering weight loss experienced by contestants on “The Biggest Loser” shape our beliefs about those who are overweight and their ability to lose weight? A few studies released this year suggest that viewing reality weight loss programs like “The Biggest Loser” may actually promote “anti-fat” attitudes and weight bias.

A study by Yoo (1) suggests that watching “The Biggest Loser” may lead to greater fixation on body weight and beliefs regarding personal control over weight.  While one would think that a personal locus of weight control is a good thing and promotes a “can do” attitude, the framework developed by Yoo suggests just the opposite – “anti-fat” attitudes are promoted when personal responsibility for weight is overemphasized, which reinforces negative attitudes regarding those with weight struggles.

A study by Domoff et al. (2) released earlier this year supports such a theory. Among 59 participants randomized to watch either “The Biggest Loser” or a nature show (control intervention), level of dislike for overweight individuals and beliefs regarding the controllability of weight were significantly higher in “The Biggest Loser”-viewing group.

We know that obesity stigmatization is rampant in the media (3). These results suggest that even brief exposure to such media portrayal may promote the over-attribution of personal responsibility (i.e., poor diet, lack of self-discipline and laziness) while minimizing the myriad of other obesigenic factors, such as genetic, socioeconomic and environmental causes. It appears that these beliefs about locus of control are shaped at a young age too. Martin et al. (4) found that perception of weight controllability among a group of adolescents was associated with negative beliefs regarding self-control and laziness in those who are overweight.

Given the level of TV viewing in kids and adolescents, a big concern for us is how reality-based TV programs, whether “The Biggest Loser” or “Extreme Makeover”, could be shaping young viewers. In fact, watching cosmetic surgery reality shows was (not surprisingly) associated with greater body dissatisfaction, internalization of media-based ideals, and disordered eating in a sample of college-aged women (5).

No Baloney’s advice. Despite the label of “reality TV”, what goes on during “The Biggest Loser” is far from reality – how many people struggling with their weight are afforded the opportunity to move to a ranch away from work and family-responsibilities, have their daily food intake critiqued and work out 4 times per day, 6 days per week with a trainer? All while their every success and failure is documented for millions of viewers’ “enjoyment”? While the show touts itself as inspirational, a lot some of the content, like exercising-until-you-vomit and temptation challenges seems pretty sadistic to us!

Ask any kinesiologist their opinion on forcing obese people to exercise to the point of collapse – they’ll tell you it’s not a great idea and not likely to create long-term, sustainable change. See what a dietitian thinks about severe hypocaloric diets and mounting pressure that leads some contestants to fast and dehydrate themselves for the sake of the scale – ditto, not a recipe for success and likely to stimulate undesirable metabolic changes that effectively sabotage weight maintenance (see our previous post on Post-Dieting Syndrome) (6).

Don’t get us wrong, there have been some absolutely amazing success stories on “The Biggest Loser”, but for every success story there are untold tales of weight regain, eating disorders and poor body image. There are a lot of Dr. Bernstein success stories too, but just because it’s “medically supervised” doesn’t mean it is safe or good for you! Don’t get us started on the product shilling machine that the show has become either…

So why then is “The Biggest Loser” so popular and effective for some? As we discussed last week in “Put Me In Coach…”, we think the fact that contestants have a coach in the show’s trainers (however tough the love may be) does wonders. Again, this ongoing and close support is not something most people trying to lose weight are provided with.

“The Biggest Loser” is a TV show that is not intended to paint a realistic picture of weight loss, it is intended to boost and retain viewership. If such a show motivates you to make some changes, this is fantastic! But keep in mind, losing 10 pounds per week is not realistic or healthy in most cases. So don’t feel like a failure if you don’t succeed in the same way as those on the show. We suggest incorporating the best parts of the program, like the coaching element, while taking the extreme diet and physical activity programs with a proverbial grain of salt. Slow and steady wins the race – but is never going to be a successful TV show.

References:

  1. Yoo JH. No clear winner: effects of The Biggest Loser on the stigmatization of obese persons. Health Commun 2012 [Epub ahead of print]
  2. Domoff SE, et al. The effects of reality television on weight bias: an examination of The Biggest Loser. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2012; 20:993-8.
  3. Ata RN, Thompson JK. Weight bias in the media: a review of recent research. Obes Facts 2010; 3:41-6.
  4. Martin SB, et al. Weight control beliefs, body shape attitudes, and physical activity among adolescents. J Sch Health 2011; 81:244-50.
  5. Sperry S, et al. Cosmetic surgery reality TV viewership: relations with cosmetic surgery attitudes, body image, and disordered eating. Ann Plast Surg 2009; 62:7-11.
  6. Johannsen DL, et al. Metabolic slowing with massive weight loss despite preservation of fat-free mass. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2012; 97:2489-96.

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