Turning “The Biggest Losers” into Winners
by Lisa Avellino
Fitness Director, NY Health and Wellness
The media is awash with reports about The Biggest Loser’s spurious methodology, alleged behind-the-scenes abuses, and claims by contestants that they gained the weight back. Is all this hullabaloo merely a case of sore losers vs. The Biggest Loser? Or are these unfortunate outcomes the result of the reality show’s practices and procedures?
Regardless of where you sit on the fence with The Biggest Loser, there are lessons to be learned.
Because the science of extreme weight gain and weight loss is relatively new, we can use the anecdotal evidence of The Biggest Loser to examine our weight loss expectations, and even our entertainment choices. Extreme numbers and incredible success story images grab headlines. But over time, the public becomes desensitized, so to keep high ratings, reality show producers up the ante with scenarios that are bigger, faster, and more extreme. And if we support these shows, they will continue to air.
But pointing the finger at The Biggest Loser TV show is a cop out, similar to blaming video games or fast food for the obesity epidemic. We must address the multitude of underlying causes to responsibly conclude why America is one of the fattest countries in the world, or why, as Time magazine stated years ago, this will be the first generation that will not outlive their parents, due to obesity.
A federally funded study, conducted by Dr. Kevin Hall at the National Institutes of Health, insinuates that changing metabolic rates, hormone levels, and genetic predisposition provide a more accurate explanation of post-weight loss gain.
However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Just as every human being has a unique finger print, individuals also have their own weight gain and weight loss body print. A colorful way of looking at this process is to understand that the human body is designed for homeostasis, the tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium that allows it to survive with more or less fuel, and more or less activity. Simply put, the human body is designed to outsmart the input/output ratio, with the goal to maintain average resting weight. After extreme weight loss, the body seeks a return to “normalcy,” which in this case, is weight regain.
Clearly, we also need to analyze the underlying reasons why The Biggest Loser contestants may have gained weight in the first place, such as the human regulators and the natural occurring hunger hormones ghrelin, cortisol, and leptin. The relationship between these hormones and weight is part of a chain of physiological processes. There are literally hundreds of hormones and neuropeptides (e.g. chemical signals that transmit information) involved in the regulation of weight and weight-related-behaviors like hunger and satiety.
Leptin is a hormone produced in the fat cells which plays a role in regulating body weight by signaling to the brain to reduce appetite and burn more calories. Some studies have shown that losing weight causes a marked decrease in leptin levels, which may in turn increase appetite. Surprisingly, obesity is linked to unusually high concentrations of leptin. Some research suggests that these high, sustained concentrations make the receptor for leptin inactive and impair the very mechanism that should eliminate excess fat. In other words, although plenty of leptin is produced, it is unable to function properly.
Ghrelin is a hormone released by the stomach that increases hunger, slows metabolism and decreases the body’s ability to burn fat. During weight loss, some studies have found that individuals who lose weight and try to keep it off make more ghrelin than they did before losing weight, as if their bodies are fighting to regain the lost fat. Similar to leptin, ghrelin appears to work differently with excess weight.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland that increases as part of the body’s response to stress.
As a fitness professional, it is my hope that The Biggest Loser weight gain controversy does not discourage people from trying to live a healthier lifestyle. They may feel that if The Biggest Loser contestants gained back all their weight, it could happen to them, too. We must take a hard look at the contestants, not as victims, but rather individuals that tried a weight loss program with high visibility and a potentially big prize.
It is unrealistic to achieve goal weight and expect the weight to remain constant. In order to maintain the new healthy weight, an aftercare regimen must be followed. The program, which is aligned with one’s natural occurring hormones, should include a nutritionally balanced meal plan and a cross training fitness plan that combines stretch, strength, core and balance work, with an emphasis on mindfulness, breathing, motivation, alignment, and environmental adjustments.
And last but not least, let’s change the name of the show to The Biggest Winner––Maintain and Thrive! And add a new segment called “home maintenance transitioning” to learn about naturally occurring hunger hormones and how to balance them, along with a nutrition and fitness program. The prize should be awarded to contestants who not only maintain their healthy weight, but inspire others––these are the Biggest Winners of all!