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How The Biggest Loser Promotes Weight Bias

Whatever the intentions of the producers, there is accumulating evidence that public display of weight loss as in competitions, challenges, and reality TV do little else than promote anti-weight bias by promoting stereotypes, unrealistic weight loss goals, and simplistic (diet and exercise) messages about possible solutions.

This notion is again supported by a recent study by Domoff and colleagues from Bowling Green State University, Ohio, USA, published in OBESITY.

The researchers examined how exposure to 40-min of The Biggest Loser affected participants’ levels of weight bias amongst 59 participants (majority of whom were white females), who were randomly assigned to either an experimental (one episode of The Biggest Loser) or control (one episode of a nature reality show) condition.

Levels of weight bias as measured by the Implicit Associations Test (IAT), the Obese Person Trait Survey (OPTS), and the Anti-fat Attitudes scale (AFA) at baseline and following the episode viewing (1 week later), showed that viewers of The Biggest Loser had significantly higher levels of dislike of overweight individuals and more strongly believed that weight is controllable after the exposure.

Interestingly, amongst the participants, those 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.

These results clearly indicate that anti-fat attitudes increase after brief exposure to weight-loss reality television, especially perhaps in people with lower BMI.

Given the impact that anti-weight bias has on all aspects of trying to find solutions to obesity (from public health messaging to funding for obesity research or treatments), not to mention its devastating emotional and physical impact on people living with excess weight, perhaps it is time to revisit social norms and acceptability of this form of entertainment.

These shows are not a solution – they are part of the problem!

Vancouver, BC


  1. As a counsellor specializing in weight management, this article on the Biggest Looser resonates strongly. I also have to ask how bullying, humiliating and publicly shaming pepole can be in anyway helpful or constructive? Many of my patients and clients are already so vulnerable. Shows like this just alienate them even more. I hope we can read more articles such as this one in the public arena more often.

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  2. As a morbidly obese person for over 50 years and now finally living in the solution rather than the problem, I heartily agree! My pathological relationshiop with food is a physical, emotional and spiritual “Killer.” Watching it displayed on TV quite absent of understanding or compassion, is not entertainment for me.

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  3. As somebody who runs a reality TV website that covers The Biggest Loser (among many other shows), this is an interesting result for several reasons. First, I do know of people (anecdotal, of course) who have been inspired by the show to lose weight. I also know people who have been so turned off by the show that they stopped watching. Usually, the turn-off is because the show focuses more on “drama” (mostly contestants fighting, twists turning things upside-down for them, etc.) than on teaching people to lose weight. Also, of course, despite the name of the show, the winner is NOT necessarily the one who loses the most weight, because that person is often voted off due to the strategic nature of the game.

    One thing that would be interesting to me regarding this study is WHAT 40 minutes the participants watched. Was it one of the inspirational moments? A forced drama moment? One of the times when contestants were being nasty to each other (something especially common during the current season)? If it was the latter, for instance, I can certainly see somebody walking out with a negative bias towards overweight women, because one of the contestants this season is a nasty, nasty person (who also happens to be an overweight woman).

    That said, watching only 40 minutes of a weekly show that usually runs two hours (with commercials) is kind of a limited exposure and, because of selection bias, may not give a completely representative view.

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  4. I have been saying this for years! These shows offer an unrealistic portrayal of weight loss because they are on a “ranch” for weeks at a time only concentrating on one goal, weight loss. The trainers are NOT trained counselors but they resort to yelling at them and offering one solution: work out more. Well, it’s not that easy. The body stores fat for more than just lack of energy expulsion. The body can store fat when you are stressed, depressed, or in hormonal states for a number of reasons. The underlying reason why someone is struggling with weight loss does not always have to do with input/output. Mental health is the perpetually ignored factor. I don’t watch these shows and I don’t suggest anyone who wants to lose weight watch them either.

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  5. Obviusly these kind of enterteiment tv shows hardly do help anyone exept for the tv´s owners, becouse only do they want the most amount of people in front of the tv.

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  6. Whoa, David, you truly don’t get it. You probably ended up here because part of your job is monitoring the web for pertinent info, but suffice it that this site is not a simplistic “US Magazine” site that promotes zippy diet and “lifestyle” advice with a goal of weight loss. It is a serious medical site that understands obesity as a complicated, confounding issue that isn’t solved once and for all with a brief episode (less than one year) of radical weight loss. Yeesh.

    Sure, The Biggest Loser may inspire people to lose weight. That’s not an issue. ANYONE can lose weight. It’s really not that difficult (and you don’t even need a Biggest Loser trainer to bully you into exercising to the point of vomiting to do it). The problem is that most people do not maintain losses, and yo-yo weight cycling has its own health consequences. That’s why this problem is so intractable. Regainers feel guilty for not maintaining their losses because programs like Biggest Loser promote the fairy tale that all ya gotta do is lose weight, then adopt this zippy magical new lifestyle and never be fat again. Doesn’t work that way. Leptin is chronically suppressed in (nonsurgically) weight reduced people; Ghrelin is chronically elevated and other hormones, peptides and neuroprocessing agents are out of whack. Metabolically, moreover, weight reduced people are different from people of the same weight who have never been fat. Weight-reduced people must exercise considerably more and eat considerably less to maintain the same weight as their never-fat counterparts. And they don’t get a vacation, a break of any sort, or else the weight quickly creeps back. That is why people regain. Not because they were ignorant, lazy or under the impression that they could just return to their old ways once they lost the weight. Most people who (nonsurgically) lose weight are earnest and committed to changing their ways forever, but they run into obstacles that NO ONE, even their doctors, prepare them for and that Biggest Loser really doesn’t address. Trust me, it’s really more complicated than portion control, increasing your veggies and substituting skim milk for the full-fat variety in you lattes. Additionally, the Biggest Loser just assumes that whatever exercise routine that a contestant ultimately adopts at home will maintain losses attained from a 4- to 6-hour grueling daily schedule. Good Lord.

    Finally, this TV show is rude and disingenuous because it places a gag order on participants, so that after leaving the program they can’t talk about weight regain. Several have been “outed” by media, but even then it’s portrayed as being their own fault for falling off some mythical wagon. The fairy tale is allowed to continue, as is weight bias. The Biggest Loser grants permission to a society all too ready to bully and discriminate against fat people. The myth goes on: Fat people only need a “wake-up call,” doncha know. Look at all these Biggest Loser success stories!

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  7. I was introduced to this show just recently when I was staying with my brother’s family for a week. The bullying was just disgusting and I found it very uncomfortable to watch. Also I can’t believe people volunteer for that, I wouldn’t put up with that treatment, not to mention broadcasting it, unless they paid me seriously big money.

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  8. Debra: You shouldn’t make assumptions about how I got here or why I posted or whether I “get it.” In fact, I follow Dr. Sharma regularly, as well as a number of others in the field. Why? Because about three years ago, I lost 90 pounds and know quite well about the battle to maintain that weight loss. Indeed, I had planned to create a website dedicated to it, but have unfortunately not had the time.

    Believe me, I “get it” quite well and LIVE IT each and every day.

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  9. As Dr. Sharma would succinctly and correctly put it, “the Biggest Loser is bullshit.”

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  10. Yes David doesn’t get it. I’m a long term “success” story having lost 65 and kept off pounds to get to an average weight. Keeping the weight off is much more difficult than losing it. Not only are there the issues that Debra mentions, but you have to deal with the daily maintenance and hunger for a long time – six years so far for me and it dies not get easier.

    Too many people and doctors frame the problem as merely will power – that’s a pile of manure. It is critically important that young people never get fat and that those who deal with obesity be treated with respect and compassion.

    I wonder if that TV show accepts ads from companies that contribute to America’s societal obesity problem? My guess is the are hypocritical and do just that.

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  11. Um, Steve, maybe you should have read my follow-up post before posting that I “don’t get it.”

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  12. When I was scrooling through the posting and saw David’s I thought he was just another information junkie somewhat like me. The science behind weight lose can not be based on a reality tv program that has a cash prize for winners. the veiwing public forgets the these participant are exersizing for 8 hours per day have specialized dietians and do nothing but diet and exersize. They do not deal with the moody co-worker, or misrible boss, or foolish friend. Life is not the way they are living it is a fantisicy and the producers only whant entertainment out of the process. They should be ordered to place a disclaimer at the end of breaks so that veiwers aren’t deluded into thinking the actions are aesily duplicateable.

    Thanks, Lucy A.

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  13. DebraSY: awesome comment – it sums it all up !!!

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  14. I am a regular watcher of the show. I guess I see it a bit differently than most (not sure if I’m right or wrong) but I do think they do way more than just telling the participants that they need to exercise and eat less to lose weight. In fact if you were to watch the show you would see one of the things they stress the most on the show is getting to the root of why you are overweight in the first place. The trainers are always telling the contestants that if they do not do this, they will gain the weight back within a few months. Those that come on the show with the motivation to get help and not just focus on the prize, usually are the ones you see years later that have maintained their loss and changed their lives. The eating is merely a sympton of what is really going on. I used food for years to comfort myself and never even realized I was doing so. The way I lost weight was to first find out what I was replacing food with, why I felt the need to stuff myself with food that was just plain bad for me. Once I realized the issues, instead of “going on a diet”, I refocused my entire way of thinking about food and lifestyle and the weight started coming off. It didn’t happen fast and I’m still in the process of losing it. I no longer focus on the scale but I keep my focus on living a healthy lifestyle and know as long as I continue to do this, eventually I will be at my ideal weight. The Biggest Loser brand has helped a lot of people that have never been nor will be on the show lose weight. I don’t think we can blame the show on how society is towards obese people. It’s a bias that has always been in our society.

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  15. I am a personal trainer. Everytime I meet a client they have a different story to the last. Some have pain from injuries that made it difficult to exercise, some have been overweight since youth and it’s genetic. Some have yo-yoed. It was good to read Debra’s input about people who have lost weight compared to people who never had weight issues.
    The problem is the public are not being educated on the facts of food and lifestyle to the point where there is a general understanding of where people go wrong. It seems to be based on looks, if you are obese people are disgusted. I have trained thin people who are weaker and more out of breath than my overweight clients. There are plenty of thin people who have high colestoral and smoke and binge drink. Health issues are more important than looks, and thin pretty people should not be exempt.
    I would love a show where people are shown what to eat, different exercises, medical advise by doctors and different people consulting with a counsellor with problems people can relate to. Nobody should be voted off, no strategies to knock anyone down. Unfortunately there won’t be enough money made from that.

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  16. In my opinion I have watched the show as a morbidly obese person for years. If you just watch it for light entertainment, it can have some positives. Sometimes you can relate to the stories of why the contestants are overweight. The viewer can also have the ability to understand “In The Real World” it doesn’t happen that way.

    It is only when people become aware of the real facts regarding food, habits, mindset, and training, that a positive approach to their own personal journey can begin. Weightloss is not exercising for 8 hours a day, its not from endorsing products.

    I have been overweight for 20 years, and tried every gimmick, every program. It was only when I was faced with the realization that I was slowly killing myself, and the reality of what next…. Gastric Sleeve or Lap Band, that I took hold of my own destiny.

    Applying everything I had learned, getting rid of the diet, and just living in a healthy, productive, positive way.

    I agree these shows are adding to the problem. REALITY tv is not Reality if the real stuff is on the cutting room floor. What about some times and dates, when showing the time line of the show. They show 5 contestants doing intervals on the treadmill at 12, you see 30 seconds of footage, and easily can tell yourself, sweet thats all they do, and look at the results.

    Its about time the trainers on TBL took charge, and gave the viewing public reality, not a false sense of do this, and you get this.

    Its taken me 18 months to lose 30KGS and I wouldn’t have it any other way! With another 40kg to go, I am proud to say I am in charge of my destiny.

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  17. A few comments. First, David. Congratulations. If you’re maintaining a 90-lb loss for more than two years, you are well into maintenance (with perhaps a few remnants of the honeymoon phase clinging to you — treasure them and hang on as long as you are able). I am closing in on one decade at minus 26% from highest established weight. I kept a blog for a year (link is in my name, above) and would welcome you to come dig around in the archives, leave me comments. WordPress alerts me and I respond.

    Laura, I haven’t watched the show recently, but I watched it regularly for a time back when Jillian Michaels was on it. I was horrified at her pop psychology. She thought she was trying to get people to “confront” why they were fat. She was ham-handed, rude, condescending and only creating more guilt. I hope the program has improved, but I suspect that I would even today find fault with how it practices psychology. People who aren’t trained in psychology should probably leave it to those who are.

    Anonymous: My heart goes out to you. I hope, indeed, you are “in charge of your destiny.” You aren’t the first person losing weight who has had that exhilerating feeling. I had it too. Actually, most people losing weight do, because most fat people who lose weight aren’t unconscious drones on the latest fad diet. Most people are earnest and using every physical and psychological tool they have to try to turn their lives around, not merely lose weight. I don’t like peeing in your beer, but I’m going to because it may help you keep this time from being a yo-yo. Please be aware that the honeymoon will end. Your “downhill ski adventure” will flatten out and you will need to strap on cross-country skis, and it may not be the inspiring journey that cultural mythology has promised you. If you are wise, you will become your own scientific experiment, n=1, and you will work hard, using your personal experience and research skills, at sifting good information from bad. On this topic, you will make yourself smarter than your own family doctor, who is fed on cultural mythology as much as anyone else in western culture (unless he or she is a regular reader here, of course). I truly do wish you well on your adventure, but I winced at your final statement: “I am proud to say I am in charge of my destiny.” In my faith tradition there is a proverb that begins Pride goeth before . . .

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  18. As well as weight bias, the focus of The Biggest Loser is that the way to lose weight is to do absurd amounts of physical activity. The Morbidly Obese already are burning more than enough calories, being 300+ pounds pretty much insures they are burning 3K+ a day. The Morbidly Obese real troubles are on the consumption side. Food Addiction issues, and chronic bad choices of overly processed foods insure that they eat way more calories than is healthy.

    The show spends precious little time talking about food, other than when they are pitching some overly processed crap that is likely as much part of the problem as part of the solution.

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    Dr Lustig, University of California
    How fructose metabolizes differently from sucrose,
    how it causes metabolic syndrome including obesity,
    why it has jumped to being a huge part of our diet over the last few decades, the same time obesity became such a problem.

    One of many factors.

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  20. Lisa, Laura, and Anonymous probably have the most realistic views of “Biggest Loser”. A panel presentation last week at ACSM’s Health and Fitness Summit cited research on the effects of reality TV about weight loss on respondents. 57% said the programs have influenced their eating habits and 48% said the shows influenced their exercise behavior. The percentages were dramatically higher among obese respondents (72%/73% respectively). BL has spawned grassroots spinoffs of the idea at workplaces, communities, and other areas. The segments portrayed on the shows are only a small part of the entire process and obviously selected to heighten the drama and viewer involvement. In addition, Tara Costa gave a keynote address about her experience on BL and “living a new lifestyle” (from the title of the presentation). Most informative!

    As David said, we don’t know what 40-minute segment (or combination of segments to equal 40 minutes) of the show was used to conduct the research by Domoff et al. There is room for both perspectives regarding the show: some positive elements and some negative elements. One truth about BL and its clones is that they focus on outcomes vs behavior. How about a “Biggest Mover” contest–a pedometer step challenge?

    Teresa Merrick/Bellevue, NE

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  21. The question that is not being asked is how do we help these people with positive methods, since negative methods are unpalatable.

    Both the Drill Sergeant & the Dr. Spock approaches are leaving people suffering, but most strongly I feel that accepting w/o helping is an immoral option.

    So what do we do?

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  22. Those with compassion will see the contestants on the Biggest loser compassionately.Dr. Sharma has presented some evidence of the promotion of wt bias by the show, the Biggest loser. It is as limiting as the people that participated in that evidence.
    I watch this program to develope more understanding of what my clients think they must face and hope that it may compel others to seek the truth about their wt issues in their own lives and hopefully promote further discussion amongst everyone who see it.
    I am grateful some of my clients that I counsel with wt issues also watch the program.
    It is a valuable opportunity to have more open conversations with them as they find their own way. As well, you may have seen stunts that disclaim….”never try this at home” I must state that I am grateful for my unique opportunity to do “no harm “and will continue to” take no prisoners”when it comes to the issue of obesity in “real” life with my clients at work and at home.
    I’ll just bet you a million the bias by others existed long before any exposure to the Biggest Loser!

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  23. Once again, DebraSY is banging the same old drum, always too eager to tell anyone and everyone who has lost weight that they’re still in the honeymoon phase, that they’d better get ready to strap on their cross-country skis, etc etc etc.

    Debra – can you please find some new metaphors?

    And while you’re at it, can you please refrain from prefacing every use of the word “lifestyle” with “zippy”?

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  24. I am one of the five percent that has been able to maintain a substantial weight loss. I didn’t do it for cosmetic reasons. I adopted a low carb way of eating to control my Type II diabetes. Back in 1998, I lost over 100 lbs, and I have kept it off. At times I will gain as much as ten pounds, but I tighten up my control and lose it again. If I weren’t diabetic, I doubt very much that I would have been able to keep the weight off.

    At first I was curious about The Biggest Loser, but I was sickened by the way “contestants” are abused. Nothing could persuade me to put myself and my struggles on display.

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  25. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about discrimination. Regards

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