Most of my readers will be familiar with the television show “The Biggest Loser” – there are ‘homegrown’ versions of it in Australia, the UK and the US. Today I want to write not only about why they do immense harm (and no good), but also why they are (despite the show’s marketing drivel) cynical, anachronistic, exploitative and plain nasty.
For those of you unfamiliar with the approach of the Biggest Loser and shows in a similar vein, they select a group of people who are very overweight (many of whom come from areas of lowered socio-economic prosperity), and who have had very little success with sustained weight control. They then put the ‘contestants’ through a series of humiliating (and potentially medically and psychologically dangerous) scenarios that include caloric restriction (but with the option to binge on high-calorie foods if they ‘fail’ the willpower test – adding a level of shame to the experience), humiliation-based exercise that is designed to be as painful and difficult as possible (again to make it easy for the participants to ‘fail’ – makes for ‘better’ television), and a series of public, weekly weigh-ins. Those who ‘fail’ to meet an arbitrary weight are eliminated from the show. Eventually a person or team emerges as the ‘victors’ and we’re told to celebrate along with them as they parade their new bodies up and down and tell us how they were so miserable in their crappy lives until they were rescued by a bunch of TV marketing people.
Let’s cut to the chase straight up. The show markets itself as a health and fitness program. It’s anything but. It uses attractive, stereotypically fit looking ‘trainers’ as models for the participants to ‘aspire’ toward being. And it fails utterly as anything but a modern ‘freak show’ – in which us, the audience, are encouraged to make fun of the unfortunate participants as they fail. We’re told that the only way to lose weight or to be healthy is to subject ourselves to punishing dietary and exercise regimes. We’re told that people who struggle to lose weight are losers, and we’re told that, if our body shape doesn’t meet an ideal, we’re inadequate, ugly, and (by extension) failures. The show perpetuates the stereotype that overweight people are lazy and stupid, and that all it would take for them to lose that weight is a bit of willpower – preferably in the form of an abusive ‘sergeant-major’-type personal trainer.
In Australia, most recently, the show has been marketing the fact that it’s going to “transform an entire town”. The show’s producers have selected an Australian town in which low employment levels have resulted in lowered socio-economic standards, reduced employment options, lowered educational opportunities and, consequently, an increase in average body weight (I’ll address this in a minute). Labelled “the fattest town in Australia” the show claims that it will help the population by curing them of their terrible fatness (because, according to the show’s message, there’s nothing worse than being fat).
A large amount of my postgraduate training was in health and exercise psychology. Looking at established research, it’s clear that there are a lot of good ways to encourage people to achieve and sustain a healthy weight, and there are a lot of sociological reasons why impoverished Western communities are often above this healthy weight range. Just as important, is the research that demonstrates the immense damage being done by the weight-loss industry, including shows like the Biggest Loser.
Let’s examine shall we? First up, researchers have learnt that, for most people who sit above a healthy weight, it’s not a question of choice. They are not lazy or stupid, and they do not suffer from a lack of willpower. In fact, where you live has a lot more impact on your body weight that pretty much any other variable. People who grow up in socio-economically impoverished communities are less likely than their more privileged counterparts to receive a comprehensive education, are less likely to have parents who have been well educated, are more likely to be brought up in a household that encourages unhealthy eating (through no fault of their own – a healthy diet is most correlated with a high level of education), are less likely to have parents employed in a ‘white-collar’ profession and less likely to become professionally employed themselves, are more likely to be exposed to violence and crime at a younger age, are more likely to have children at a young age, and less likely to rate their lives as satisfying. The keys here are education and developmental environment. Those of us lucky enough to be raised in wealthier homes get access to a developmental environment that gives us advantages for the rest of our lives, whilst those of us raised in an impoverished environment are substantially more likely pay for it throughout our lives.
Not only is there a strong, causal relationship between an impoverished upbringing and difficulties maintaining a healthy weight, those who grow up in these environments are more likely to develop heart disease. Traditionally, it was assumed that both of these problems were simply the result of diet and lifestyle. And it’s true that, for the most part, people who live in socio-economically depressed communities have a nutritionally poor diet and get little exercise. But it’s more complex than that. Researchers studying communities in Scotland with very high levels of heart disease have found that growing up in an impoverished environment changes the way your body and brain respond to stress. Being raised with an increased threat of violence, and poor nutrition, changes the way a person responds to his or her environment, resulting in a much higher release of stress hormones (such as cortisol) both to stressful situations, and to situations that others would see as normal. In other words, these people are conditioned to be more likely to perceive threats even when there is no threat, resulting in a stress response. The resultant changes to the limbic system (for a primer on the effects of the limbic system on human behaviour read my blog here) and consequent increased levels of circulating cortisol, lead to both longer-term cardiovascular damage, and a metabolism primed to store body fat. Worse, the fact that the brain is wired in preference to a limbic response to situations that are not violent, results in a greater propensity to act in a violent manner, even when it’s not warranted. Put simply, the environment in which you’re raised and in which you live can modify you to be more likely to put on weight, as well as damaging heart tissue and priming you for ongoing violence. The resultant poor diet (potentially combined with alcohol abuse) just makes it worse. So it turns out that, for people in these situations, being overweight has very little to do with being lazy or stupid, and everything to do with the world around them.
There are several other really important areas associated with weight control that need to be pointed out. First, is the danger of rapid weight loss. It seems that everywhere I look, the combined evils of the weight-loss industry and women’s magazines are telling people to do ridiculous things to their bodies in order to lose weight. Most of this crap is just that – complete bullshit – and most of it is dangerous. Because our evolutionary past involved periods of food scarcity, humans evolved compensatory mechanisms to protect us in the event of restricted calories. When our caloric intake is reduced suddenly, in order to survive, the body slows its metabolic rate to conserve resources, trying hard to sustain body weight. It will then consume (in order), blood sugar, body fat, and protein. Once caloric intake is restored, the body attempts to store as much fat as possible to guard against future famine. Consequently, many people who use crash dieting to control their weight ‘yo-yo’ up and down. Longer-term, this behaviour can result in metabolic damage, reducing the body’s ability to sustain healthy weight.
By the way, I’ve used the words ‘healthy weight’ a lot. It’s important to clarify what this means. A ‘healthy’ weight is one at which a person is able to live a healthy life, free of diseases that could be triggered by an ‘unhealthy’ weight. Put simply, this means eating moderately and healthily, getting enough exercise, getting enough sleep, and managing stress (although as we’ve already seen, depending on upbringing and environment, this might not be enough). Healthy weight is often associated with body mass index (BMI) – a widely used, but thoroughly debunked method for establishing a healthy weight range. In reality, healthy weight will vary immensely by person, based on his or her genetics and preferences.
It’s important to note, however, that it’s not possible to sustain a healthy weight without sustained, regular exercise. Again, the fitness industry will tell you that this means gym memberships and expensive training gear, but it simply means regular movement that increases heart rate to a reasonable level for a sustained period of time (and, hopefully, some regular weight-bearing exercise as well). Regular exercise also comes with a bevy of physiological and psychological benefits (read here).
As important, to succeed in achieving and sustaining a healthy weight, there has to be a motive. Most people don’t succeed in their intentions (like New Year’s resolutions) because they’re not actually committed to change. Extrinsic motives, like wanting to look a certain way, being told you need to lose weight by a medical professional, or being shouted at by a trainer, also don’t work. Intrinsic motives, like wanting to be around for your family, or wanting to be healthy into old age, or wanting more energy, tend to be more lasting. Feedback is also immensely important. Beginner exercisers are vulnerable to drop out because they have a very low level of confidence. Being shouted at by ‘good looking’ people is a recipe for disaster. Gentle, supportive feedback combined with technical instruction tends to work a lot better. Let’s face it: exercise isn’t simple or comfortable, especially for beginners – and it takes a fair bit of support to sustain a behaviour that isn’t easy.
Back to shows like the Biggest Loser. Because the ‘logic’ of the show is predicated on the stereotype that ‘fat’ people are overweight because they’re lazy, it perpetuates the other stereotype that all they need to lose weight is enough prodding, preferably by someone who looks good on camera. While this makes for good ratings (note, ratings do not equate to good television – see below), it does nothing but harm to the participants. Sure a couple might end up losing weight, but their chances of sustaining this weight loss are extremely poor (and it’s all done for extrinsic reasons – there’s not attempt to instill intrinsic motives). Worse, it perpetuates the idea that only ‘winners’ can maintain a healthy weight, and that everyone else is just pathetic. Consequently, it reduces the participants’ chances of any successful health-related actions in the future, and pretty much guarantees damage to their physical and psychological wellbeing. All this just for ratings.
And let’s be honest: the only reason why the Biggest Loser achieves television ratings is because it plays to our sadistic natures. It’s the modern take on the circus freak show. We get to poke fun at the ‘silly fat people’, laughing at their failures, and telling ourselves that we’re so much cleverer and sophisticated. It takes our minds off our own, sad, consumer-driven lives, and lets us denigrate other people for our own amusement. Frankly, it’s a disgusting display of cynicism, manipulation and denigration, that perpetuates all the myths and stereotypes that lead to poor health.
There’s one more area I need to address: our modern, Western ideals surrounding body image, especially for women. We’re told, from an early age, that if we don’t look like an idealised, photoshopped model, that we’re inadequate. Screw our genetics, our environment, or our upbringing – what’s more important, the fashionistas tell us , is looking ‘fabulous’. Not because it’s healthy, but because that’s the way we ‘should’ look, and because people who feel bad about their bodies buy more crap. It reminds me of dog breeders obsessed with breeding freaky looking dogs (with a whole bevy of genetic abnormalities and disease prevalence) because that’s the way they’re ‘supposed’ to look.
I say – fuck the marketing departments of large corporations. Learn to think for yourself, and decide how you want to look based on function, health and wellbeing. Not because of an imposed ‘norm’ or a ridiculous television show, but because it increases your chance of living a healthy, satisfied life. And I’m not talking about body image here – this comes down to all the choices you make – how to live, what to eat, who to be with – as long as these choices are yours, and based on things you value, your chances of satisfaction are going to be increased.
I’ll finish on a positive note. Let’s imagine a show that is actually about helping a town to be healthier. It would have to be shown on a station that didn’t rely on ratings – maybe the BBC (in the UK), SBS (in Australia), or PBS (in America) – because it would probably be a documentary. The producers would identify a socio-economically impoverished town, and then secure funding for long-term intervention, run by health psychologists. The show would attempt to address all of the risk factors for poor health (of which being overweight is only a symptom) and, over time, invest in improving the local education system, educating children and parents. They’d attempt to increase employment prospects and offer retraining. They’d invest in the urban infrastructure, to make it easier to walk, and to encourage community gardens for growing food and for pleasure. They’d address crime and violence, not with extra policing, but with an emphasis on community integration. They’d lobby government to decriminalise drugs, again reducing the impact of crime. Over 10-20 years they’d work with the community and the town’s administrators to develop a healthy environment. The result, healthier, more satisfied people. Maybe they’d be slimmer, but that’s not the point. They’d be physically and psychologically healthier.
But that’s not going to sell ad space is it?