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The Danger of Biggest Loser Diets

August 20, 2016

An average of 3.5 million viewers watched the most recent season of NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” tuning in to cheer contestants on as they shed pounds each week and transformed before a national audience.

But it appears their transformation won’t stick. According to a recent study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), nearly all of the 16 contestants who competed on the show six years ago have regained much of the weight they lost. Some even gained additional weight. 

The study showed that 14 of the 16 contestants who appeared on the show’s eighth season regained some of the weight they’d lost on the show. About a third of them regained all their weight and then some. 

Why?

NIH researchers point to two reasons: because contestants had lost weight so quickly, their metabolism slowed, resulting in 500 fewer calories a day burned than before the show. Contestants also had lower levels of the satiety hormone leptin, which regulates hunger. When these levels are low, the brain goes into starvation mode, which easily can lead to overeating. “The Biggest Loser” contestants in the study with lower leptin levels regained weight after the show even though they remained physically active. 

The New York Times recently interviewed some of these contestants about their life after the show. Danny Cahill, who won the show’s eighth season by losing 239 pounds in seven months, has regained more than 100 pounds and now burns 800 fewer calories a day.

Sean Algaier, who was 444 pounds when he started the show and lost 155 pounds, is now larger than he was before “The Biggest Loser” — he now weighs 450 pounds and burns 458 fewer calories a day.
“It’s kind of like hearing you have a life sentence,” Algaier told The New York Times.

Weight loss is hard to achieve in the first place, but even harder to sustain long term. Many people regain weight after losing it, especially if they shed pounds too quickly. However, the study shows that this can have a significant impact on the body’s metabolism and its ability to burn calories long term. 

Researchers say the study indicates how biologically difficult it is to lose weight, even when you have the willpower and do everything to achieve weight loss.

Rudy Pauls, another contestant who lost over 200 pounds and later had weight loss surgery, put it simply: “‘The Biggest Loser’ did change my life, but not in a way that most would think. It opened my eyes to the fact that obesity is not simply a food addiction. It is a disability of a malfunctioning metabolic system.”

Unfortunately, just cutting calories isn’t the solution. Researchers said in the Times piece that there should be more effort to find measures that fight against the body’s biological inclination to return you to your previous weight. “We desperately need agents that will suppress hunger and that are safe with long-term use,” one doctor said. 

But in my view, the best solution is slow and steady weight loss with a supportive team behind you. It's not ideal to go through a quick program like “The Biggest Loser” with an unsupportive trainer or team pressuring you. The glare of the national spotlight doesn’t help either. When you go home after shows like this, you’re in a less controlled environment — and that’s when the real work begins. If you’re struggling with weight loss, seek help. Enlist a dietitian, health coach or see a bariatric doctor if you are severely overweight and may be a candidate for weight loss surgery. Losing weight is one of the most challenging things anyone can ever do, so you don’t have to tackle it alone.

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