The transformations seen during the 2015 Australian season of The Biggest Loser are nothing short of extraordinary. The hard work, determination and inner strength exhibited by all the contestants is to be applauded. Every contestant on the show demonstrated that it’s possible to make amazing positive changes no matter what your starting point.
However the show also conveys some dangerous messages that need to be addressed. First and foremost, weight loss does not equal fat loss and not all weight loss is healthy. Losing a dramatic amount of weight in such a short time means all the contestants lost muscle and bone as well as fat. The winner of the contest is not necessarily the healthiest because muscle contributes to better blood sugar control and a higher resting metabolic rate. The more muscle a person loses the more difficult it is to keep the weight off because you need fewer calories to maintain your new body weight. Losing bone is another negative side effect of rapid weight loss, putting a person at risk of osteoporosis and fractures later in life. And for anyone not on the show, the speed of weight loss is utterly unrealistic and sets people up for disappointment if they expect the same sort of results.
So how could the show send a healthier message to viewers? Ditch the weigh-ins and educate contestants and viewers on what really constitutes optimal health: making healthy choices on a daily basis, not being obsessed by numbers on a scale. It is only visceral fat – the fat that surrounds and infiltrates the organs in our abdomen – that contributes to major health problems such as widespread chronic inflammation, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The fat under our skin – known as subcutaneous fat – behaves differently to visceral fat and is not necessarily a health hazard. Therefore waist circumference (WC) is a much better predictor of health than is body weight: under 80cm for women and under 94cm for men. Body composition is best assessed by DEXA scan, which only takes a few minutes and reveals a person’s muscle to fat ratio as well as where their fat is located. WC and DEXA need not make for less interesting viewing and would provide a platform for better health education than the show currently offers. The contestants could have a DEXA scan at the start, middle and end of the season with fortnightly waist measurements along with other assessments of improved fitness such as muscle strength and VO2 max. This would teach viewers about far more important factors relating to health than simply body weight.
Similarly, not all calories are equal and the emphasis on counting calories detracts from focusing on fresh whole foods. A tin of spaghetti was implied as a better choice than a piece of salmon because it contained fewer calories. This is nonsense and is doing the Australian public a great disservice.
Finally we need to lose the word “lose” because any goal associated with loss creates subconscious resistance. We are more strongly wired to seek pleasure than to avoid pain. Loss implies pain even if we consciously think it is good for us. Focus on what you will gain by having better health, not on what you will lose.
Great health need not be a distant destination; it’s a daily choice. What choices can you make today and every day going forward that will improve your health? Not eating in front of the TV, standing up during all the ads and using stairs rather then elevators wherever possible are three examples of small changes that can add up to make a big difference over time. When you’ve established one small change as a habit, add another. Aim to be the The Biggest Chooser of healthy lifestyle habits rather than the The Biggest Loser of muscle and bone.
*This HeB appeared as an article in the February edition of Great Health Guide