Is The Biggest Loser preying on disadvantaged communities?

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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.

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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. www.kaseyedwards.com

 

59 comments

  • Oh, the tweets - so disgusting, so cringe-inducing. Startling contrast to this well-written article.

    Commenter
    ljs9987@gmail.com
    Date and time
    January 20, 2014, 9:00AM
    • Ararat?

      I've never watched this show but all the ads I've seen recently said it was 'Ballarat'.

      Maybe I might have to pay more attention but that would violate my "no reality TV" rule. I'd prefer to keep that rule. Reality TV is garbage.

      Commenter
      Bender
      Date and time
      January 20, 2014, 9:19AM
      • Ratings are everything - after all, when you've done fat twins, fat families, fat friends etc. you have to dig even harder to come up with a new twist on fat. So, for as long as the show is on, these people who ordinarily might not be able to afford regular meals of fresh fruit and veg, lean meats, etc. live in a fantasy world of nutritionists and personal trainers with workouts up to 6 hours/day.
        And what happens after the fat lady sings? Do the producers of BL ensure the town continues to have access to nutritionists and trainers as well as provide nutritious meals (and maybe some high paying jobs and other support?)
        As for the viewers, perhaps watching BL is like viewing the train wreck - we don't want to look but....and we can breathe that sigh of relief thinking thank the stars that isn't me....

        Commenter
        secondcheckedbag
        Date and time
        January 20, 2014, 9:43AM
        • Hi, I live in Ararat, I am overweight, yes it was slightly offensive being told over and over again by channel 10 that we are the fattest town, but then being told by this article that we are also poor and socially below the national average hurts even more. Thanks Kasey Edwards.

          Commenter
          l
          Location
          Ararat
          Date and time
          January 20, 2014, 9:52AM
          • Surely education is important. Blaming socioeconomic disadvantage is a bit of a cop-out. You are fat because you are poor. Get used to it! If TBL can educate people not to waste money on soft drinks and other sugary junk then they may actually lead slimmer, healthier, happier lives. Losing weight is hard, keeping it off is hard but requires education about food choices.

            Commenter
            Charlie
            Date and time
            January 20, 2014, 9:52AM
            • I think Jamie Oliver's approach is more balanced as it focusses on food intake and prepering healthy food as the basis for a healthy lifestyle., Education about food , preparation, portion control and wellbeing is better than 'gross' out shock statistics, with obese people lining up with the Commando to walk up a very difficult hill. I did watch the program to see what the approach was like, but i was uncomfortable with the physical strain the contestants were exposed too, kept worrying about health issues as people collapsed from trying to do something they had not prepared for...and the drawn out emotion the program took. the focus on loathing and nothing about 'how to prepare good food'. maybe that will come later, but last nights shock episode was all about shame and tears for viewing effect. Very disappointing.

              Commenter
              Hamelot
              Location
              Victoria
              Date and time
              January 20, 2014, 10:12AM
              • If you want high brow TV watch the ABC. This is commercial television and is therefore designed to attract the viewers and advertising dollars. Save the pontificating for a government White Paper submission.

                Commenter
                Paddy O'Laughlin
                Location
                Redfern
                Date and time
                January 20, 2014, 10:23AM
                • I think when the Biggest Loser first came to our screens there was a genuineness about it which has been lost in subsequent seasons...

                  It's nice to put on rose coloured glasses and hope that a show like this might encourage people in the town to eat better and exercise more, however, the life-change required from making poor dietary choices and moving very little to a healthier lifestyle cannot be solved by a weekly hour-long show.

                  An immense amount of research, knowledge and action is required for even one person to correctly modify their eating and exercise habits in order to have a healthy body and as this article correctly pointed out, some people can be "skinny" but actually quite unhealthy and vice versa.

                  Unfortunately all shows like this do is perpetuate a stereotype that, if you're not a dude who looks like the Commando (and yeah, he's hot - I wish I looked like him) or a chick who looks like Michelle Bridges, you aren't good enough and should go hide in a gym and eat lettuce leaves until you are.

                  The simple fact is that genetically - many of us will never be able to look like that. We need to change our relationship to food and exercise so that it becomes intrinsic to who we are - not something that you "turn to" after Christmas period of sloth and gluttony.

                  that's my two cents.

                  Commenter
                  Adrian
                  Location
                  Sydney
                  Date and time
                  January 20, 2014, 10:28AM
                  • Had enough of this trash years ago, when they brought in the Commando and started openly humiliating contestants for no reason, such as by spraying them with a fire hose while they were working out. Michelle Bridges has made $67M on the back of this exploitation and suffering, and Channel Ten -- Dog only knows what their profits are.

                    Commenter
                    Red Pony
                    Date and time
                    January 20, 2014, 10:31AM
                    • So yet another article rubbishing the show. How about selecting another town with similar problems and coming up with an alternative way of overcoming the same issues?
                      Take a couple of years or so & see which method works best.

                      Commenter
                      KevinM
                      Location
                      East of Melbourne
                      Date and time
                      January 20, 2014, 10:40AM

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