Is The Biggest Loser preying on disadvantaged communities?


The Biggest Loser machine screeched into the regional Victorian town of Ararat last night, and we all got to gorge on the usual clichés. Fat people stuffing their faces with junk food. Fat people crying. Fat people talking about how they are unlovable and unworthy.

The Biggest Loser PR team would have us believe that their community-wide weight loss initiative is groundbreaking.

It’s not.

The method of weight loss – extreme calorie restriction, exercise and shame – existed long before a bunch of celebrity trainers and TV execs realised there was gold in them thar hills of fat. In fact, it’s been the standard weight loss approach of governments, doctors, the weight loss industry, and some corporations for over 50 years.


There’s just one small problem. It doesn’t always work.

Despite half a century of chiding people to eat less and exercise more, people have become even fatter.

However, not to let a growing body of research get in the way of ratings, the producers at TEN have chosen to put the spotlight on two of the most marginalised groups in society: the overweight and the underprivileged.

As we were repeatedly told last night, Ararat is one of the 'fattest' communities in Australia. In what has to be one of the most useless statistics in history, the trainers revealed that the total weight of town is 901 062 kilograms.

But, unsurprisingly to anyone who knows anything about obesity, Ararat is also socially disadvantaged, with income, employment, and internet connectivity below both the state and national averages. It also has a higher than average number of people living in public housing. 

While we might not like to admit in our supposedly classless society, where everything is a matter of individual choice, there are clear structural links between being obese and being poor.

"The link between socioeconomic status, poverty, oppression and prejudice with higher body weights is well established, and these links remain even when people’s eating and exercise habits are taken into account," says Louise Adams, a clinical psychologist specialising in weight issues. "It’s very worrying that these complex issues which deserve attention have been reduced to chasing temporary weight loss for entertainment’s sake."

Ararat’s social disadvantage wasn’t exactly lost on the audience:


In all likelihood the people of Ararat will be left in an even worse state than when the show arrived. Most of them will probably end up fatter.

Clinical psychologist Louise Adams says, "Physiological analysis of American Biggest Loser participants showed that their metabolisms slowed significantly beyond expected levels. Metabolic slowing greatly increases the risk of weight regain, and many people who crash diet end up heavier than they were before. The psychological damage done when people put the weight back on is considerable."

And if social media is any indicator, the fat hatred is already being laid on thicker than the show’s confected emotional drama:

Thankfully, there are public health bodies overseas who are starting to rethink their Biggest Loser-type approach to tackling obesity. The Provincial Health Services Authority in British Columbia, recently released a discussion paper conceding that past community-wide initiatives have not only failed to reduce obesity, but have done more harm than good by perpetuating weight stigmatisation.

"Harm is generated through the perpetuation of weight bias, stigma, bullying and discrimination," states the report From Weight to Well-Being: Time for a Shift in Paradigms?

"Alongside the obesity epidemic is a “shadow epidemic” of weight bias...There is extensive evidence demonstrating strong links between weight bias and harm to mental health and well-being, including poor body image, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and other psychological disorders, and suicidal thoughts and actions."

The report recommends a shift from focusing on weight to focusing on wellness. The evidence suggests that people can improve their metabolic health without any weight loss at all.

"Some people who are obese are metabolically healthy, while others of normal weight are metabolically unhealthy, as indicated, for example, by levels of insulin sensitivity, blood lipid profiles and blood pressure."

"Indeed, improvements to physical health can be made through changes in physical activity and diet in the absence of weight loss."

Unfortunately for Ararat, improvements to health in the absence of extreme behavior and weight loss does not make for good TV.

Kasey Edwards is the author of four books.