'The Biggest Loser': Biggest Success or Loser Idea?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Soon after its 2004 debut, "The Biggest Loser" became an American culture phenomenon. Each season, contestants push themselves to the limit, losing astounding amounts of weight in a relatively short period of time. Achieving these kinds of jaw-dropping results, though, requires tremendous amounts of exercise and a very strict diet. Given the extreme circumstances of the show's format, "The Biggest Loser" has experienced its share of ups and downs over the years.
  • In 2013, Jillian Michaels was penalized on the show for giving her team caffeine supplements before a weigh-in. The controversy sparked debate about the methods trainers and contestants used in order to produce dramatic weigh-ins each week.
  • Season 3 runner-up Kai Hibbard claimed producers wouldn’t show romantic relationships developing on the show until contestants lost an "acceptable" amount of weight.
  • In 2014, Rachel Frederickson made headlines with her 155-pound weight loss, going from 260 to just 105 pounds. Trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels could not contain their shock at the "final reveal," where many people said she looked unhealthy and had lost too much weight.
  • A recent New York Times article profiled a number of Season 8 contestants who gained the weight back, along with the struggles many dieters face to maintain weight loss.
After 17 seasons, millions of people still tune in each week, some finding inspiration, others finding frustration. When I tell members on the SparkPeople Message Boards that a healthy rate of weight loss is typically one to two pounds per week, often I’ve received this reaction: "Why can the people on 'The Biggest Loser' see such large amounts of weight loss each week but I can't? What's wrong with me?" Here's my opinion on the show: It sets viewers up for unrealistic expectations about what it takes to lose weight in a healthy way, which includes lots of time and patience.

In my opinion, the best way to lose weight and keep it off for good is to establish healthy habits you can live with for the rest of your life. If you find inspiration in the contestants' stories or can relate to some of their emotional or physical struggles, then perhaps the show can be a motivational boost in your weight loss journey. I can criticize the show for its weight loss methods, but I can also see why many people like it.

I asked SparkPeople members for their opinions, good and bad, about the show. Here is what some of them had to say:

Why I’m Not a Fan

I have never been a fan of the show. Sure, I feel motivated when I watch and I am happy for the people who do it, but I feel the show's concept is to browbeat its contestants. I don't believe that anger is any way to motivate people. Plus, once the show is over, you are on your own. I don't know, it's just not for me. TAIS157

I do not care for the show or their philosophy. I had an acquaintance once who loved the show and called it inspirational. How is it inspirational when the contestants are put through hell to quickly lose weight that they probably didn't gain quickly? Weight loss should never be about quick fixes. It's a journey. MLAN613

A lot of these people are morbidly obese. Going from couch potato to running long distances with that much weight has to have high impact on their joints, not to mention on their hearts. And the episodes that I have seen where contestants look like they are about to collapse scare me. SHERYLDS

Yes, you can lose tons of weight rapidly in a controlled environment where you work out for most of the day and measure EVERY gram of food, but it's not necessarily healthy, nor is it a "cure" for obesity. Slow and steady wins the race, just like the tortoise and the hare. It's a lifestyle change, not a fast fix. DAWNO64

Why I’m a Super Fan

What I found the most helpful was not the game play, the fitness or weigh-in's. It was the time spent working on the emotional issues behind WHY they were at this place in their life. I know that is huge in the health journey for most people who have larger amounts of weight to be rid of. Their last season they actually did change the focus on TV more towards the mental side of it and I appreciated that. DETERMINEDJANET

I’m a big fan of the show! I’ve watched it since it started. I love to watch the contestants realize that they really can lose weight and do so many things they never imagined they could. It’s very inspiring! I know that over the years a lot of them have gained the weight back. It’s heartbreaking to see that, but I know a lot of them have kept it off, too. I’m not sure what the difference is. LLREED

I am inspired by the stories of the contestants and the struggle they have to lose the weight. It makes me appreciate how hard weight loss is for people like them. It also helps me with my own weight loss struggles. I have found it interesting watching the things that are happening on the show. For me it indicates how they got where they are and the changes they have to make physically and emotionally. I know when the trainers get so tough with the contestants, it bothers many people. But, it's at that point that it all becomes real. If they are going to reach their goals they have be willing to do the work, go the distance and make the changes. That is true for the rest of us. As long as we are making excuses and justifying our overindulgences or lack of exercise, we will continue to struggle. CINDILP

When I watch the show, I am looking for a-ha's that will help me on my weight-loss journey. I try to relate to them and find myself in their journey. I like all the tips on exercising and eating. I can see that there is always an underlying reason why the contestant put on the weight in the first place...and they, like us, have to deal with that and move on to lose the weight. The show helps me with my weight loss via INSPIRATION. It's so much easier to keep at it when you are inspired. When you see their progress, you want that, too. You think, "If they can do it, I can do it too." COMPUCATHY

Are you a fan of the show? Why or why not?

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LOVETOTRAVEL99 10/21/2019
Never really watched it. Report
LESSOFMOORE 10/13/2019
I never watched Biggest Loser. As so many have said, it wasn't realistic, or healthy! Report
KOALA_BEAR 7/26/2019
I have seen BL & watched it for a season or so sporadically. Hate Jillian Michaels & Bob was a better trainer but much like his heart attack, even w/ doctors & nutritionists checking in on the contestants, I'm surprised no one died. Saw some injuries & thought those folks participating traded one form of misery for another. Wouldn't go on it if I was guaranteed payment. Report
FRAN0426 7/10/2019
Never was a fan if the show. Watched it off and on the first two seasons, then decided that what they had to do on that show was not realistic and said so long to watching. Report
KHALIA2 5/25/2019
Thanks! Report
TXGRANDMA 11/20/2018
I have always been a fan of the show! Never missed an episode buy now that I know more about a certain trainer, I never watch it anymore. It has list a lot of its appeal. Report
I have never watched the show ,but it DID start my journey to weight loss b/c my MOMS'Club had a Biggest Loser contest {at the time that show was becoming very popular} and I came in 3rd . But the MOST IMPORTANT factor from that is that one of the moms introduced me to SP !!!!! Report
Loved it!! Learned a lot. Lead me to know I needed to address my own emotions with poor food choices.

It was a reality show. Everyone knows there's little reality to them.

I hated to hear of the ones who gained it back and usually more. Sadly we have some who come to Sparks and want to lose a large amount in a very short period of time than leave when they don't.

I'm so glad I was new when Sparkguy(AKA Chris Downie) wrote The Spark which can be bought on Amazon, used in very good condition for $5.00 including shipping. This has helped me know the way to do this, for life. Its not over a yr if list 125 lbs, but its working!! Finally I AM a success story!! Report
I never agreed with the methods used on the show and recently I heard accusations that drugs were used to force rapid weight loss. Report
Guess I'm a fan since I've watched most all the shows but there are things about the show that I didn't like. Report
I saw this periodically. Loved the emotional aspect but not the harshness. Report
I've only seen a little of it being in the UK, but while the transformations can be inspirational and show what is achievable, the process is just un-achievable, but 2lbs a week doesn't make exciting tv I guess! Report
Just the fact that the screaming trainer (don't know his name as I didn't watch much) nearly died from a heat attack proves he wasn't doing a great job. If a trainer yelled at me like that he/she wouldn't be working for me. They also had drastic diet changes that were hard to stick to in real life situations. I know how easy it is to just add a little more every so often and it's even easier when a good trainer moves away. Report
I am a fan of the show but do not think the methods they use would suit me at all they don`t focus enough on the daily food eaten that would be interesting as exercising is only part of the journey Report
I watch some of it. It was not a healthy or safe way to help the contestants lose weight. I have learned there is no quick fix it is a lifestyle change. Report
When Ali Vincent lost all her weight, and even has her own show on the Livewell network, I was stoked. Then I read she gained all her weight back plus some, I was in shock and horrified that someone that supposedly could lead obese people to a healthier lifestyle, and then destroy that image, made me question these shows of rapid weight loss. I don't watch any of them anymore, and there has been too much controversy in how they went about it. One just has to change the way they eat the slower the better, and develop a healthy lifestyle. No props no gimmicks. Report
I for one loved that show. I know the contestants lost an ungodly amount of weight each week and exercised at least 7 hours a day and I knew that was not usual infact who does that? But it also kept me motivated to keep at it, eat healthy and exercise. I have done that for the last 9 years and am still doing it the spark way, track nutrition, exercise and drink that water. Report
the very first season I watched spell-bound.... knowing full well (common sense) there's no way anybody with a real life (work, friends, family, pets, organizations, volunteer, emergencies, etc) would be able to do "that at home"
I didn't bother after season one-
- I think it's a failure- thumbs down
I think we need to take it for what it is. Reality tv. We all know reality tv is not reality and contestants on all reality tv shows are put in a vacuum. As for taking advantage of the contestants I’m not sure it’s that simple. Except for the first season the contestants knew what they were getting into. They chose to go on. The blame can’t exclusively be put on the producers and directors. People need to take responsibility for their own choices Report
Not a fan. Sets the contestants up to fail when the show is over. Report
Never a fan - not real life. Report
It's easy to enjoy watching the show, but what isn't easy is the questions that beg to be answered:

"How is this safe?"
"What happens to the contestants after the show when there is no support, and their environment at home is still the same as it was when they left to be on the show?"
"Is this not exploiting people who are dangerously obese for the sake of making money and for marketing purposes?"
"What is this doing in the minds of children who watch the show who may also be overweight?"

I think the show is entertaining, and I did watch a few episodes early on, but as someone who has suffered from eating disorders, I think it is exploitative and dangerous. Therefore, I chose to never watch it again. Report
I was a fan. I do enjoy the show. I have trouble with the games they play when it comes to voting people off. But the challenges and the emotional issues are very inspiring. Because of the show, I have gone zip-lining, rock climbing and some on very challenging hikes. I am very afraid of heights but thought if they can do it, so can I. Report
I was a fan of the show - probably not on now?? However, I found the challenges so unrealistic most of the time - stuff I could never swallow my fear and attempt or even wanted to try attempting -- so that part was discouraging for me -- seemed like TV show rather than reality for me. Report
I've always thought it sets way too unrealistic expectations about weight loss and what is and isn't healthy. I understand it can be motivational, but as someone who has severe health issues due a genetic disorder, I can't help but worry about the health of the people in the show. Heart, lungs, joints... They will all take a toll and while exercising is healthy it's healthy in moderation. Balancing it with a healthy diet and healthy habits without overdoing it will allow even those with medical conditions like my own to lose weight (or gain, if that's what you need) and be healthy, and many in the show either are on the way of getting ill or have health issues already. I feel health is considered a lower priority in the show than dramatic effect, and that's not at all how it should be. Report
Not a fan at all for the reasons listed in the article. Report
So many of them have regained the weight. :( Report
If it hadn't been for the show I would not have joined SP and got to my goal. It took a long while to do this and watching the show made me realise how happy they were.

Remember this is a TV show and lot is them playing to the camera Report
I really enjoyed the show until I read the N.Y. Times article. I was saddened for the contestants & quit watching the show. Report
Yes, the show, to me, is quite frightening in many ways. These are human beings, not lumps of clay to be slapped and moulded into some sort of ideal body shape. However, the Spark BLC Challenges do things right! As a member of a BLC team here, I have found the team activities to be based on sound advice for healthy, self-nurturing fitness and nutrition, as well as compassion for the individuality of each team member's weight loss journey. Yes, we want to lose the weight, but we do not want injuries, unhealthy amounts of weight lost too quickly, or any of the stuff you see (or fear you may not be seeing, since it's kept behind the scenes) on the show.

The Spark BLC Challenge may be a very good thing to feature in an article! It takes the best ideas of the television show and gets rid of anything inhumane or dangerous. The team concept may be the key: the teams offer support and a sense of common purpose, as well as friendship and compassion. Overweight people are emotionally vulnerable, and weight loss is difficult. Having a team to lean on is an incredibly powerful thing.

Thanks for the article! It reaffirms my commitment to my Spark BCL team! Report
Loved your blog Report
I am elderly and to work out like a BL contestant would endanger my life, especially without professional supervision. So I found it hard to relate to the show and haven't watched it in a while. One show I cannot get enough of is "My 600 lb Life". Although I am not in that weight category, the psychological struggles of the patients in the show truly resonate with me. Report
I have never seen the show- and never will. I try to watch only 2 hours of TV a day and Biggest Loser is not something I want to include in my viewing time. Report
I get why people like the show, but the science points to the whole thing being a metobolic disaster. Report
the lowered metabolism/ calorie burn part is pretty fascinating Report
I am a fan of the show. There is utmost concern for the contestants' health, both emotional and physical.
But ultimately, it is the contestants' responsibility to continue on their journey after the show -- personal responsibility for their life, personal decisions. To blame the show is ridiculous.
The NYT article was a total disappointment for me - what's happened to personal accountability? Report
I watched the show in the past but haven't in awhile. I didn't like what they did to the contestants and lost interest. Plus so much is repeated and prolonged. Its a shame, that its so extreme too. Who loses 15 or 20 lbs in a week? Really? So it leads to people having unrealistic expectations. Wish there was a show that just celebrated people who lost weight and showed us what they did and ate. Report
I like the show but I also realize that these folks are in a controlled atmosphere and exercise hours a day and limited access to unhealthy foods. In real life we are exposed to unhealthy foods and don't have hours a day (well most of us) to exercise. So we shouldn't expect such big losses. I would love to see a show where they follow people in real life situations where they share their real struggles with diet and exercise. and not in controlled settings
I was a fan in the beginning and then saw a show where several past contestants had gained back a lot of weight. I got sick of seeing people screamed at and bullied while working out and it made me sick. If anyone spoke to me that way - they would walk away with a bloody lip! Then last year I watched another episode and it focused more on the emotional aspects of obesity and it made a bit more sense. However I am not a confirmed watcher because it makes me feel like a loser because can't do what the contestants do! There is so much more to losing weight and staying healthy - it is so much more than just numbers! Report
I am sorry, I have never watched the Biggest Loser. Report
It was just revealed today that the contestants were given diuretics as well as the caffeine pills. The Biggest Loser should be called the Biggest Fake. Report
Everyone who has attempted to lose weight and fought the good fight knows how hard it is to succeed. I am one of the best losers of all time-All 80+ diets I have tried in my 47 years I was successful in losing, but when do we considered a success? Keeping it off a month, a year, 5 years?!? I think of it like AA...food addiction is just like drug addictions. Every day we have to chose what we eat....every day we have to eat...unlike a drug addiction choosing isn't so black and white. Every day is a struggle to NOT overdo sugar in my case, say no to a French fry and look at every fast food joint like they were a "dealer". Participating in a reality TV show on weight loss is setting yourself up for failure. After being sequestered for months from life, working out with trainers hours everyday, and having others prepare your food. Those doors open and poof you are back in the real world. Facing the same obstacles, dramas, and emotional baggage that you left. I blame us the American TV audience for encouraging, cheering and continuing on this reality TV scam. Yes we want them to get the make over, we want them to impress their family & friends, but we aren't there for them when the lights turn off and the cameras disappear. They are just as human and fragile as we are, they were brave enough to audition, courageous enough to tell us embarrassing stories, and desperate enough to turn to a TV audience for support. Everyone has their own journey and struggle to succeed and their own definition of success when it comes to weight. I have lost over 108 lbs and kept it off for 3 years now, but everyday I want to bury my face in a buffet, eat a dozen donuts, eat every potato in Idaho. So I can't say that I have found success as long as I have to battle that internal struggle. Love and Hugs to all. Angie
Keep your money..keep your prizes..
What I want is instruction..what I want is form and technique..

What I need is information..I need data.. Help me learn the best there is for my body with all its limitations..Show me and tell what I need to make this 'machine' of a body needs to keep it running smooth and tight and roaring like a freight locomotive!

I love the show..I learn more and more.. I would sign a waiver and go on for free.. I think way too many contestants 'play' it like a game show..get caught up in the 'politics'! Contestants get close to each other and create allies..only to dump on each other when it comes down to 'the contest'! Then..when the show is over..and the lights go off..the weight comes out of hiding again.. And they learn so much on the show..but forget it and don't put it to good use when they go home.

Obesity is NOT about food..it is a symptom of underlying causes and conditions!

I knew one of the contestants when I lived in Iowa. He was a great wrestler and I loved the Hawkeyes (Still do) I barely recognized him when I saw him on the show.. yet somewhere in the quest for weight-loss came the shimmer of the 'bright and shiny objects' Money and recognition!

Nobody gives a crap about me now and they won't care if I lost 69 pounds of a total of 122 pounds..no more than they would care if I gained 122 pounds! Keep the cash..teach me!
If I could go on the show..they have medical staff in the background..they push you beyond what you (even as a viewer) think a person can do for their size can possibly do. They have a doctor on board..full physicals..blood tests.. full gym..pool(I have only seen 1 person ever use the pool!) And the creme' dela creme'..some of the best in-shape trainers known by all viewers..

Bottom line..it's a great show.. when you are fighting for your life..and you keep your eye on THAT prize . . Keep your money..

Yeah . . put me in the game Coach! Report
I don't agree with rapid weight loss, it always comes back...and brings friends most of the time. A large % of these contestants have issues that make weight gain a secondary symptom, the coaches are NOT the trained in analysis as they think they are! I've watched coaches yell and scream at some contestants that was unnecessary and damage causing. It's just not a healthy show, too "mean kids" and that's one reason some of us are overweight to begin with! Report
I used to watch the show religiously (when it was on for 2 hours per week). As with anything, it wore off and I just lost interest. They have the contestants working out for far too long and then it becomes an obsession with them. I used to see so many comments on their FB page where people would say 'I need to lose weight and this is my only chance; how can I become a contestant?'. To me, it is right up there with gastric bypass (I am totally against under 'normal' circumstances). They play with people's heads, making them think that they have to work out like them and eat like them and when people don't lose weight or plateau, they give up. Report
More than once, as I have been struggling through a workout, I have thought to myself, "if those people on The Biggest Loser can do the workouts they do, then I can make it up this hill, finish this workout, etc.". It's inspiring, regardless of the fact that they are getting help that I never will. I believe (and hope) that the show gives them lots of counseling and resources for when they go home. In the end, they still have to do the work. Report
I enjoy watching the Biggest Loser show and am happy to see people with such odds succeed. However, do not like nor approve of some of the "Drill Sergeant" tactics. Report
In an indirect way, I actually feel I owe my 60+ pound weight loss, plus subsequent maintenance for about 7 years strong now, to the show - I'll explain.

Basically, it got me into Jillian Michaels. Some people hate her, but back then BL got me into listening to her fitness radio show / podcast where she is a totally different person and gives way different advice - in fact she is constantly telling callers to eat more, and not create too large of calorie deficits! And constantly beats the drum of 1.5-2 lbs per week weight loss. Using her principles (not BL's) I have been really successful. Lately, her podcast has become more of a random talk show and less fitness-y, which is a bummer because it used to be great. It was actually from her podcast that I learned about Sparkpeople because she recommended it as a great free support community!

So in an indirect way, I owe my success to the BL and still watch it because everyone knows misery loves company! Report
Recently I have developed a different view of the problem with shows like this. A generation or 2 ago losing 50 pounds was a big deal. Now we spotlight 100, 150 or even more. I wonder if it encourages us not to worry about 20 extra pounds or 30. After all, don't people lose 3 or 4 times that much? I'll think about that "tomorrow." It's not just this one show either. Magazines seem to be competing with each other to put "biggest losers" on their covers. Whether they kept the weight off or not isn't a concern. Report
I've seen the show, but I am not really a fan. I think it's unrealistic, because most people don't lose weight that way. We can't all afford trainers, caterers, a doctor who will supervise the rapid weight loss, or even a gym membership. So for me it seems very irrelevant to my life and impossible to duplicate at home. But I do think it's an interesting show, irregardless. It's just not interesting enough for me to watch it unless nothing else is on. Report