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Does 'The Biggest Loser' Hurt or Help Obese People?

Losing weight and entertaining people at the same time seems like a win-win situation. But such might not be the case for the reality show "The Biggest Loser."

Jan. 18, 2012 -- Losing weight and entertaining people at the same time seems like a win-win situation. But such might not be the case for the reality show The Biggest Loser.

Watching reality TV game show contestants sweat, strain, and diet their way to big weight loss may actually lead viewers, especially thin viewers, to more harshly judge all overweight people, a new study shows.

Researchers think the reason is that the show appears to do a good job of convincing us that body weight is entirely within a person’s control.

That sets up the idea that if show contestants can shrink dramatically, everyone should be able to.

The problem with that notion, experts say, is that it just isn’t true.

“The real reality is that significant, sustainable weight loss is not achievable for most people,” says Rebecca Puhl, PhD, director of research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., in an email to WebMD.

“We know that the most that we can really expect people to lose and keep off over time from conventional weight loss programs is about 10% of body weight,” says Puhl, who studies weight bias, but was not involved in the current research.

“Of course, some people lose more than that, but the vast majority regains that weight within one to five years. We also see this happening on the show -- when people leave the show, many regain the weight back,” she says.

A spokeswoman for NBC, the network that produces “The Biggest Loser,” declined to comment on the study.

Fueling 'Negative Attitudes'?

The show, now in its 13th season, has been a blockbuster success, spawning an online weight loss program, a line of diet and nutritional supplements, and two luxury weight loss resorts.

“It’s great entertainment,” says researcher Robert A. Carels, PhD, a psychologist and associate professor at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio.

“In some respects, it does seem to portray obese individuals in a positive light. You get to see their background stories. They work very hard. You’re connected to the characters.”

“On the other hand,” Carels says, “it might kind of backfire.”

He says his study and a couple of others have suggested that extreme weight-loss shows, which typically show contestants losing hundreds of pounds with several hours of daily exercise and strict dieting, all while they leave their family and jobs for weeks or months, “may fuel some of these other negative attitudes about how controllable weight is.”

Testing Attitudes After Watching Extreme Weight Loss

For the study, which is published in the journal Obesity, 59 college students were randomly assigned to watch an episode of The Biggest Loser or a nature-based reality show, Meerkat Manor, for comparison.

Before they tuned in, researchers tested their attitudes about obesity and obese people by having them answer several computer-based questionnaires.

The students were kept in the dark about the purpose of the study. They were told the tests were measuring how fast they could process the questions.

They were asked, for example, how strongly they agreed with statements like, “Fat people can lose weight if they really want to.”

They were also asked about traits they associated with being obese. Choices included positive things like being honest, sociable, and intelligent. Negative choices included lazy, undisciplined, and unattractive.

A week after taking those initial tests, people were asked to watch their assigned shows. Researchers tested them again after they finished the episodes.

As expected, “Meerkat Manor” didn’t seem to change how students felt about obesity one way or the other.

But researchers say they saw small, but significant shifts in some attitudes after students watched The Biggest Loser.

“We saw an increase in dislike and an increase in perceptions of controllability,” says Carels.

“The dislike seemed to be a little bit stronger in people that were thin and not trying to lose weight,” he says.

Weight Bias Is Tough to Change

Other experts had a different take on the study’s results.

“I think people, by and large, come with negative attitudes [about obesity], and they’re very hard to change,” says Rena A. Mendelson, PhD, professor of nutrition at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. “I’m not sure that you can argue that watching the show made them more anti-fat.”

Mendelson has conducted a similar study, presented last year at Canada’s National Obesity Summit, which tested 42 people before and after they watched either The Biggest Loser or America’s Next Top Model.

Her study found no change in viewers’ attitudes toward obesity or obese people after watching either show.

That was surprising, she says. She thought people who watched The Biggest Loser would feel more sympathy and less bias toward obese people afterward.

“I think the real point of their work and our work is how pervasive anti-fat attitudes are; how strong they are and how persistent,” she says.

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