‘The Biggest Loser’ Is One of the Most Harmful Reality Shows on Television
On the eve of its return, the weight-loss juggernaut is haunted by disturbing reports from former contestant
Celebrity fitness trainer Jillian Michaels seems to want it both ways: She insists that she’s “inclusive” when talking about people’s bodies, yet at the same time she can’t help but editorialize on the body of a plus-size pop star. This most recent series of public jabs isn’t a simple gaffe or slip-up — it’s a perfect illustration of Michaels’ legacy with The Biggest Loser, one of the most harmful shows in reality television.
Last week, Michaels made headlines for her unbidden comments about the body of pop star Lizzo during an interview on BuzzFeed’s AM to DM. Michaels claimed to support inclusivity just before accusing Lizzo of “glorify[ing] obesity,” quipping, “It’s not gonna be awesome if she gets diabetes.” The online response to Michaels’ remarks was swift and strong:
As the condemnations of Michaels’ remarks continue to roll in, few take into account her lengthy history of publicly shaming, humiliating, and even abusing fat people on her show The Biggest Loser Michaels first found fame as a personal trainer on the NBC prime-time juggernaut that ran for 17 seasons and ended in 2016. The show is slated to return later this month on USA Network, this time rebranding itself, like so much of diet culture has, as a show about “wellness.” But since its initial run, The Biggest Loser has drawn significant criticism about its brutal weight-loss regimen, including allegations of verbal and physical abuse — and possibly causing lifelong damage to its contestants’ health.
The Biggest Loser promised viewers dramatic weight-loss transformations week after week. Each season, filmed over the course of about six months, pushed its contestants to lose as much weight as possible as quickly as they could. The contestant who lost the most weight — frequently more than 100 pounds — would win $250,000 and the title of “Biggest Loser”
Despite the show’s claims that the extreme weight loss was in service of the contestants’ health, The Biggest Loser’s approach sharply diverged from longstanding best practices in the medical community. The National Institutes of Health recommend no more than one to two pounds of weight loss per week, cautioning that larger losses can be both short-lived and dangerous. Losing weight too quickly can lead to significant heart problems, gallstones, and other health issues. Yet, according to the New York Times, some contestants lost as much as 15 pounds per week.
To achieve such dramatic results, contestants were placed on very low-calorie diets, sometimes under 1,000 calories per day, and were then put through strenuous six-hour workouts on camera. The show’s drama focused on not just the heartache of dieting and the fleeting triumph it could offer but also the personalities of its trainers, Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels, who shouted at contestants as they exercised. The show promoted its trainers as providing “tough love” motivation, but many former contestants describe their experiences differently. In 2016, the Guardian compiled a list of Michaels’ most infamous insults, which range from demeaning to outright violent toward contestants:
- “I don’t care if people die on this floor. You better die looking good.”
- “I’m proud that I made him vomit.”
- “If you don’t run, I will pull Alex on the floor, and I will break every bone in his body!”
- “I don’t care if one of your legs fall off or if one of your lungs explode.”
- “The only way you’re coming off this damn treadmill is if you die on it!”
- “It’s fun watching other people suffer like that.”
These explosive exchanges made for compelling drama for many viewers but left some contestants scarred. In the world of The Biggest Loser, its fat contestants were abject failures, wretched people who could be saved only by the trainers who humiliated them. The show’s rationale was the logic of abuse: “I’m doing this for your own good. I wouldn’t have to do this if you didn’t make me.” This, after all, was the price of thinness.
Damage to contestants’ health
For several contestants, the harm didn’t stop with verbal abuse. Michaels was found to have given caffeine pills to contestants without a doctor’s permission or knowledge. Contestant Lezlye Donahue says even the show’s doctor drugged contestants to lose weight. High doses of caffeine, like those in the pills Michaels provided, are known to cause significant health risks, including elevated blood pressure.
One contestant, Tracey Yukich, was airlifted to a hospital after a particularly strenuous workout. Ryan Benson, who won the show’s first season, stopped eating altogether and urinated blood. Suzanne Mendonca suffered multiple stress fractures in her feet, but producers forced her to run anyway.
Another contestant, Kai Hibbard, finished the season with thrush, a type of fungal infection. Hibbard, who became season three’s runner-up by losing an alarming 118 pounds in just 12 weeks, also cites The Biggest Loser as the cause of her eating disorder. That eating disorder caused major hair loss, led to amenorrhea (a lack of menstruation), and, according to Hibbard, nearly cost her life.
‘It’s a miracle no one has died yet’
Contestants experienced long-term health problems after leaving the show, with many seeing permanent damage to their metabolism. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health conducted a longitudinal study that analyzed 14 former contestants for six years following their appearances on the show. Of those 14 participants, 13 regained significant amounts of weight. (The subjects’ average weight after those six years was 290 pounds.)
Not only had their weight increased, but their metabolism also appeared to be permanently slowed. One contestant, Danny Cahill, showed particularly dire results after losing 239 pounds on The Biggest Loser. Cahill’s base metabolic rate “now burns 800 fewer calories a day than expected.” Weight cycling — that is, the repeated loss and gain of significant amounts of weight — is also associated with a higher risk of death.
In response to this new research, weight expert David Ludwig from Boston Children’s Hospital spelled out the implications in a 2016 article for the New York Times. “This is a subset of the most successful” dieters, he said. “If they don’t show a return to normal in metabolism, what hope is there for the rest of us?”
Doctors and health experts have long warned about the show’s dangerous practices. Jennifer Sage, a fitness instructor of nearly three decades, took Jillian Michaels to task for removing seats from contestants’ stationary bikes in order to “motivate” them. Ed Tyson, a physician specializing in eating disorders, spoke to the Guardian in 2016, warning about the dangers of refeeding syndrome, a potentially fatal condition that occurs when malnourished people — like people with eating disorders, people who engage in extreme dieting, and, yes, contestants on The Biggest Loser — reintroduce food.
“It’s a miracle no one has died yet,” Tyson said.
‘The Biggest Loser’ responds to criticism
The show roundly denies responsibility for contestants’ health. When asked about contestants’ medical issues in 2009, Michaels deflected responsibility from the show: “Contestants can get a little too crazy, and they can get too thin.” Nevertheless, contestants were reportedly required to sign a waiver stating that “no warranty, representation, or guarantee has been made as to the qualifications or credentials of the medical professionals” who treat contestants, “or their ability to diagnose medical conditions that may affect my fitness to participate in the series.”
Contestants who speak publicly about their experiences on the show may be fined between $100,000 and $1,000,000. Former contestant and Olympic gold medalist Rulon Gardner says that threats were explicit after he quit the show early in its 11th season. “They said to me, ‘You mess with The Biggest Loser and we’ll destroy your name.’”
Still, many continue to speak out. Hibbard now calls the show “the biggest mistake of my life.” Donahue says it was worse than her experience of surviving Hurricane Katrina. After Donahue reported that she was drugged on the show, The Biggest Loser’s doctor, Robert Huizenga, sued her for defamation. He lost the lawsuit last year.
A troubling impact for viewers
Contestants weren’t the only ones affected by the show’s tactics. For viewers, the show normalized staggering verbal abuse aimed at fat people, based solely on their appearance.
A 2012 study published in the journal Obesity found that people who watched just one episode of the show exhibited higher levels of explicit bias against fat people. “Participants who had lower BMIs and were not trying to lose weight had significantly higher levels of dislike of overweight individuals following exposure to The Biggest Loser compared to similar participants in the control condition,” the researchers found. Just one hour of watching the show left thinner people with an even greater personal dislike of fat people.
The Biggest Loser appeared to be fanning the flames of an emerging epidemic of weight bias. According to implicit bias researchers at Harvard University, while bias against many marginalized communities appeared to drop between 2007 and 2016, bias against fat people significantly increased. And research has found staggering rates of anti-fat bias among doctors, nurses, medical students, and more.
Since The Biggest Loser first aired in 2004, it has inspired 37 international spinoffs, as well as weight-loss competitions in universities and workplaces, with some corporations even offering bonuses and discounts based on employees’ weight. But the show is far from a model regimen for healthy weight loss.
The reboot of The Biggest Loser distances itself from its predecessor. The forthcoming 18th season claims to take a more balanced approach, focusing on holistic wellness rather than a simple number on the scale, claiming that the “revamped version of the iconic NBC hit competition series will feature men and women competing not only to lose weight, but also improve their overall well-being.”
Michaels’ longtime co-trainer, Bob Harper, will act as its host. And despite the show’s history of dangerous weight-loss tactics, not to mention the preponderance of scientific evidence showing the dangers of crash dieting, contestants’ success will be measured by the number on the scale.
Still, even with an upbeat soundtrack and a thin veneer of buzzy “self-care” and “self-love,” it is the same Biggest Loser that has wreaked havoc on its contestants, its viewers, and our very culture.