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Television

Forget the pounds. ‘The Biggest Loser’ tries to shed critics of its weight-loss plan

“The Biggest Loser” returns to USA Network on Tuesday.
“The Biggest Loser” returns on Tuesday with a focus on “well-being,” but it still pits participants against one another in a contest to lose weight.
(USA Network)

In early 2016, after 12 years and 17 seasons on NBC, the weight-loss reality show “The Biggest Loser” quietly aired its final episode.

The competition had long faced criticism over subjects including its structure and methodology, the risks of extreme weight loss and the lengths to which contestants would go to slim down to win the $250,000 prize. But a flurry of negative headlines that spring appeared to put the brakes on the franchise altogether.

A six-year National Institutes of Health study found that former contestants struggled to keep off the pounds after the competition ended. Allegations of contestant doping in the New York Post, vehemently denied by producers, led to a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department inquiry and a defamation suit filed by the series’ doctor, Robert Huizenga — which itself turned up evidence of a long-running NBC investigation into the series. “The Biggest Loser” didn’t return for its 18th season.

Until now.

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“The Biggest Loser” reemerges Tuesday night, on NBCUniversal’s USA Network, rebranded as a show where contestants are “competing not only to lose weight but also improve their overall well-being.” Its contestants no longer vote each other out, nor are they exposed to temptation challenges, where they were once offered junk food in exchange for advantages or rewards. Original trainer Bob Harper is now the show’s host and leads group discussions instead of screaming at them in the gym.

At the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena earlier this month, Heather Olander, USA’s senior vice president of alternative series development and production, highlighted the aftercare contestants now receive, including a gym membership, connection to a local support group and continued access to a nutritionist.

“We did want to make a better connection or bigger connection between weight loss and health,” she said. “It’s about getting healthy and setting these contestants on a healthy lifestyle path.”

Asked if any formal evaluation of the complaints and criticisms levied against the original was undertaken before the decision to move forward with the revival, a spokesperson for Endemol Shine North America, which produces the series in association with Universal Television Alternative Studio, provided a statement to the L.A. Times: “‘The Biggest Loser’ has transformed the lives of hundreds of contestants and helped millions more at home get on a path to living healthier lifestyles,” it read. “And we are excited to bring this special series back now with our partners at USA Network, introducing it to a new generation of viewers. Together with the team at USA Network, we have added a number of new elements this season, but our goal remains the same — to provide our contestants with the tools, knowledge and confidence to enjoy long-term success.”

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‘The Biggest Loser’ returns on USA Network
“The Biggest Loser” returns to TV on Tuesday after a four-year hiatus.
(USA Network)

But “The Biggest Loser” is still a competition focused on how fast contestants can lose the most weight. Participants spend about one-third of each episode in front of a giant, made-for-TV scale (“official final weights determined off camera,” a disclaimer reveals) to see the pounds they’ve lost, and are sent home if they’ve lost the lowest percentage of their original weight. The last person standing wins $100,000.

“Trying to help these individuals get healthier is an admirable goal, and who doesn’t want to see people better off?” said Dr. Michael Levine, a retired Kenyon College professor who’s an expert in the prevention of body dissatisfaction and eating disorders. “At the same time, the approach to it is primitive at best and really denies the fact that pounds off — as measured by a scale — isn’t the end-all, be-all of health.”

Dr. Sandra Aamodt, a neuroscientist and author of “Why Diets Make Us Fat,” agreed. “’The Biggest Loser’ basically glamorizes dieting, which I consider to be quite dangerous. And rebranding weight loss as wellness is a big trend,” she said. “If the success measure is pounds lost, that’s dieting, no matter how clever your branding department is.”

“The Biggest Loser” producers defended the show’s focus. “Having lost weight on the scale was something that was positive, and the contestants enjoyed that element of the show,” said executive producer Georgie Hurford-Jones, who oversaw the series at Endemol Shine North America before moving to Universal Television Alternative Studio in December.

In a statement to The Times, Harper said, “The weigh-in and competitive component of the show is a victorious moment for the contestants and viewers alike. It’s a tangible and visible expression of their hard work and success, and all the contestants celebrate with each other.”

Dr. Christy Greenleaf, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the kinesiology program who focuses on body image and weight-related stigma, said, “Any contest around weight loss doesn’t do anything to actually help people,” and even the appearance of weight loss can be misleading. When “we can see a change in someone’s body, we think it’s an indicator of health or health status, so the pursuit of that is worth any of the costs that may come along with [it],” she said.

In a 2015 study of 66 episodes of the original series, published in the Journal of Health Communication, Greenleaf and colleagues found that the overwhelming focus of its “weight-management content” was physical activity, as opposed to “diet and eating behavior” — an imbalance that would make it difficult to achieve significant weight loss outside of a reality TV setting.

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The revival of “The Biggest Loser” does not resolve the disparity: Each episode features a physical challenge, in which teams earn an advantage for their weigh-in, and two separate workouts in the gym. Trainers still yell at contestants to work harder, contestants still throw up, and trainers and contestants alike lament their failure to lose more pounds to save their teammates from elimination.

The show reinforces methods that “really aren’t that effective,” according to Greenleaf. “Weight loss is really complicated: Our bodies fight against it, our built environment fights against it, and so there’s just as much health benefit to simply moving your body more and eating foods that are better fuel for your body as there is in actual changes in your weight.”

“The Biggest Loser” trainer Steve Cook, center, talks with participants.
“The Biggest Loser” trainer Steve Cook, center, talks with participants.
(USA Network)

”Certainly, health is not equated to weight when you actually look at objective data,” she said. “There are people in bodies we would call fat that are metabolically healthy, and there are people in bodies we would call thin that have metabolic disease.” Research published in Fat Studies by Greenleaf and her colleagues highlighted “The Biggest Loser’s” “ubiquitous beliefs that a person’s physique is controllable and malleable via willpower and work ethic” and noted that, in the original series, “Pervasive weight-related stigma is celebrated and commodified.”

Despite the stated interest in holistic “well-being,” contestants on USA’s version still lament the size and shape of their bodies. One discusses being rejected for a job because of her size and says she wants to lose weight so that won’t happen again. The focus on “willpower and work ethic” also remains, starting with the title sequence, which emphasizes personal agency: “Lose the fear.“ “Lose the excuses.” “Lose the weight.” The conversation turns on burning calories, losing pounds, increasing effort. “You didn’t do your best,” trainer Erica Lugo tells a contestant in the third episode, while a contestant named Kim says, “I’m just hoping my body responds to all of the work I’ve put in this week.”

As the longitudinal NIH study of “The Biggest Loser” contestants showed, the science is more complicated.

“Focusing on losing pounds as the correct outcome measure becomes very frustrating for people when they feel like they’re doing all the right things and it’s not working,” Aamodt said. “But the impression that it’s not working comes from the ways that the body fights against weight loss — you may absolutely be improving your health, improving your fitness, improving everything about your lifestyle, and not lose weight. And what tends to happen is people give up on these changes that actually were helping them and go for some quick fix, akin to ‘The Biggest Loser’ competition, because they’ve been told that the only thing that counts is if they lose weight.”

Hurford-Jones and others associated with “The Biggest Loser” emphasized the time Harper — who is not a licensed therapist — spends in discussions with the group, which Hurford-Jones called “focusing more on talking through and getting to the root of the problem, how they got to where they are.” In Episode 3, Harper talks to contestants about the importance of support systems but fails to note that producers cut off contestants’ access to their family and friends during filming, isolation that’s standard practice on a reality show.

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According to trainer Steve Cook, there are doctors on staff behind the scenes to monitor contestants, and urinalysis testing is conducted to ensure contestants are properly hydrated before weigh-ins. But none of that is mentioned in the three episodes made available to press, nor are contestants’ individualized medical consultations with doctors and a nutritionist. (“We focus on our on-screen talent,” Hurford-Jones explained.)

“The Biggest Loser,” Levine said, is “a classic American form of entertainment, because it makes [weight loss] all an issue of freedom and individual control and individual goodness. And that’s very appealing to a lot of viewers.” But it can also be damaging: “For people who already [have] body-image issues and weight and shape concerns, and disordered eating, exposure to mass and social media tends to reinforce their values and their beliefs and their behaviors, and often tends to make things worse.”

‘The Biggest Loser’

Where: USA
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)


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