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Health as Entertainment: The Effects of Weight Loss Television Shows the Biggest Loser and Diet Trials on the Contestant and the Viewer

Neal Cotter

21 February 2011

 

A Noble Cause

Description: http://www.socialmedicine.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/obesity_58.jpg

http://www.socialmedicine.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/obesity_58.jpg

            In recent years, the obesity epidemic has come into the spotlight as one of the current generation’s greatest health concerns.  According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, America has the highest proportion of obese adults among the world’s 33 richest nations as of November 2010 with 36% of women and 32% of men qualifying as obese, and the United Kingdom ranks 5th on the same list (Wieder).  Clearly, adults in western society continue to battle being overweight, and the media has begun to reflect this struggle in its television programming.  Dozens of shows devoted to promoting weight loss and improving participants’ self-image have premiered in recent years, some of which help contestants cosmetically through plastic surgery and others, like The Biggest Loser and the BBC’s Diet Trials, introduce them to diet and exercise methods in order to reduce their weight.  While both shows are a reaction to the world’s recent obesity crisis, they represent different means of treating this topic and consequently have distinct goals, with The Biggest Loser pursuing lifelong changes in its contestants and Diet Trials seeking out scientific evidence for the effectiveness of various weight loss plans.

The Biggest Loser: a Health Competition

Description: http://www.aceshowbiz.com/images/news/00020403.jpg

http://www.aceshowbiz.com/images/news/00020403.jpg

            The Biggest Loser is a competition-style show in which contestants’ weekly weight loss percentages determine the candidates for elimination, and players are voted off every week until one winner is designated the “Biggest Loser” and awarded $250,000.  In its treatment of weight loss, the show tends to focus on the individual contestants’ motivation and psychological struggles, with all of them following a low calorie diet and a rigorous exercise routine.  Eliminated players are encouraged to continue losing weight at home, with follow-up videos updating viewers on their progress and an incentive of $100,000 awarded to the most successful at-home player (Christenson and Ivancin).  The show, which is currently in its 11th season, continues to be very popular and receives as many as 100,000 applications every season according to Time Magazine.  As the same Time article, “Fat Chance,” notes, The Biggest Loser “places the bulk of its emphasis on shedding pounds rather than maintaining the loss,” which illustrates the show’s principal weight loss focus.  Overall, The Biggest Loser aims to balance the goals of creating a highly entertaining competition and helping obese people to reach a healthier weight, but often receives critique for focusing too heavily on the former objective (Christenson and Ivancin).

BBC’s Diet Trials: A Televised Study

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            The BBC’s Diet Trials, on the other hand, was both a scientific study and a television show, with only a small proportion of the study’s scope actually being broadcast.  To conduct the study, the BBC advertised to people living within 30 miles of the testing center and accepted 293 participants with Body Mass Indices between 27 and 40 who were not suffering from coronary heart disease, diabetes, or other medical ailments.  Researchers assigned between 57 and 61 participants to each of five different groups: the Atkins Diet (n=57), Weight Watchers (n=58), Slim-Fast (n=59), Rosemary Conley (n=58), and a control group (n=61).  Participants were assigned to each group based on random, stratified assignment, but the study was not conducted in a double-blind manner.  Researchers purchased diet programs and books for each group and allowed the control group to decide if they would follow any or none of the programs, evaluating the results of the study three times over a six month period.  Throughout this time, the subjects were not offered any additional resources or advice in order to limit them to only the information given in their diet plans.  At the end of the study, some of the participants’ journeys with the various diets were made into a television series on the BBC, which was broadcast under the title Diet Trials.  Thus, this television series was a snapshot of a larger scientific study whose goals were less about providing personal assistance to individual participants and more about studying the overall effectiveness of the five diet methods assessed (Truby et al.).

Responses to the Biggest Loser

Effects on Contestants

Description: http://www.ifood.tv/files/images/Ali_Vincent.jpg

http://www.ifood.tv/files/images/Ali_Vincent.jpg

Description: http://www.biggest-loser.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/12/ryan-benson.jpg

http://www.biggest-loser.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/12/ryan-benson.jpg

            While The Biggest Loser presents significant weight losses for many contestants at the end of every season, with several nearing or surpassing 50% of their total body weight, the process has mixed results for participants in the long term.  One of the show’s winners, Eric Chopin, lost 214 of his original 407 pounds by the finale, and many previous “Biggest Losers” have seen similar results, which demonstrates the show’s ability to initiate massive weight losses.  After the show’s conclusion, however, almost all contestants gain back some quantity of weight, with some, including season 1 winner Ryan Benson (shown above), regaining almost all of the pounds they lose.  Even Chopin, whose season concluded not long before the publication of “Fat Chance,” had gained back over 20 pounds at press time, suggesting the inability of many contestants to maintain the results they experience while on the show (Rawe). 

Other former contestants, however, successfully maintain or improve on their weight loss, such as season 5 winner Ali Vincent (shown above), who lost 112 pounds over the course of the show and has become a motivational speaker, maintaining her weight loss into the present (Sklar).  Other former contestants who did not win the competition’s grand prize have followed the same path, including season 8 contestant Abby Rike (Minasian) and season 1 runner-up Kelly Minner, who actually lost an additional 23 pounds after the show’s completion and now lives at a healthy weight (Rawe).  Despite these success stories, the examples of Benson and many former contestants who were eliminated earlier in their seasons demonstrate that the show’s effects on its contestants can be described as mixed at best, with only certain individuals achieving the renewed lifestyle it champions.  As a show that promises to transform its participants’ lives forever, these results reveal that in reality The Biggest Loser reaches only limited success in achieving its commitment to its contestants.

Viewer Response

            Although The Biggest Loser has enjoyed considerable popularity as a television program with over 10 million viewers routinely watching its first season (Thomas et al.), viewer morale and receptivity to the show’s messages is decidedly mixed and veers more toward the negative side.  Several studies have aimed to assess this response, including “Cheapening the Struggle” and “Epidemics of Will, Failures of Self-Esteem,” both of which used surveys to statistically analyze the show’s effectiveness in motivating and inspiring viewers.  In “Cheapening the Struggle,” 76 obese adults—members of the show’s target demographic—were asked to give their opinion on the show’s messages, and researchers compiled quantitative results by highlighting the commonalities among the responses.  Those who conducted “Epidemics of Will, Failures of Self Esteem” collected information from 464 online survey submissions and described qualitatively the overall themes among the various viewers’ opinions.

Questionable Treatment of a Solid Foundation

            Description: http://www.dietsinreview.com/diet_column/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/shay-biggest-loser.jpg

http://www.dietsinreview.com/diet_column/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/shay-biggest-loser.jpg

While 51 out of the 76 participants in “Cheapening the Struggle” support The Biggest Loser’s core strategy of weight loss through diet and exercise, the vast majority of this study’s findings point to a negative overall viewer assessment of the show’s treatment of the topic of obesity.  An even greater proportion (54/76) of viewers described the show’s message as negative, claiming that its representations of obese people are degrading and that the show places entertainment value before real improvements in the contestants’ health.  Many of those interviewed also cited various reasons as to why the show’s depiction of weight loss is unrealistic, including the arguments that the resources used on the show are unaffordable to the average viewer (n=31), that the amount of time contestants spend exercising would be impossible to replicate for a working viewer (n=23), and that the number of pounds players lose each week is atypical and even dangerous at times (n=20).  While the viewers with these opinions do not make up the majority of the sample, the prevalence of these opinions shows that a large proportion of The Biggest Loser’s target audience rejects the show’s format, calling into question its ability to effectively inspire viewers.  Another frequent complaint among viewers was that the show perpetuates negative stereotypes of obese individuals (n=26), which further demonstrates the sample’s consensus that Loser’s strong fundamental concept is mishandled and thereby spoilt (Thomas et al.).

            Responses to “Epidemics of Will, Failures of Self-Esteem” showed a greater balance of positive and negative comments, with some directly matching and others contradicting the ideas presented in “Cheapening the Struggle.”  While this study does not report specific numbers for each response, it does state that many of the people surveyed about The Biggest Loser found empathetic value in seeing obese people’s stories presented to the general public, with some normal weight subjects claiming that the show allowed them to better understand the plight of overweight individuals.  However, viewer opinion in this survey still matched the conclusion reached in “Cheapening” that the representations of the contestants is often demeaning due to the amount of skin they must show during the weekly weigh-ins (see above photo).  The results of “Epidemics” also mirrored those of “Cheapening” in that those surveyed generally agreed that the show’s representation of exercise was largely inapplicable to everyday life and that the results experienced by contestants were unrealistic.  However, while most of the participants in “Cheapening” saw Loser’s continual mention of hard work as an implication that obese individuals are lazy, “Epidemics” reports that most of its respondents valued the emphasis on personal drive as a means to health goals rather than other options like surgery.  Thus overall, “Epidemics of Will, Failures of Self-Esteem” presents a fairly even balance between viewer praise and criticism towards The Biggest Loser, suggesting that while the show certainly does not manage to effectively inspire all viewers, it does achieve some success in presenting itself as more than simply another form of entertainment (Sender and Sullivan).

Description: http://www.phillyburbs.com/uploads/RTEmagicC_e2e2619430.jpg.jpg

http://www.phillyburbs.com/uploads/RTEmagicC_e2e2619430.jpg.jpg

BBC’s Diet Trials: Televised Science

The Study’s Results and the Show that Followed

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http://www.bmj.com/content/332/7553/1309/F2.large.jpg

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            Over the course of the study which was used to make Diet Trials, researchers continually monitored participants and managed to produce significant findings at the project’s conclusion. While dropout was fairly common in all five groups with each diet retaining at most 47 participants until the end, the relatively equal dropout rates and the exit survey given to those who chose to leave the program early made comparison among groups’ results possible.  Overall, almost all participants in every group except the control group were successful in losing some amount of weight, with Atkins users averaging 6.0 Kg, Weight Watchers users averaging 6.6 Kg, Slim-Fast users averaging 4.8 Kg, and Rosemary Conley users averaging 6.3 Kg after six months.  The only group whose average did not compare to these numbers was the control group, which actually reported a 0.2 Kg average weight gain after the six months period.  Researchers also measured several other statistics such as cholesterol levels and blood pressure, which only reaffirmed the relatively equal effects of the four diets in comparison to the relatively stagnant control group.  Thus, most of the program’s participants succeeded in achieving to some degree the weight loss they sought out, and the study certainly met its overall goal of determining the differences in effectiveness among diet plans, since its results showed that as long as participants were following a plan, they would experience weight loss regardless of which plan it was (Truby et al..

            The televised component of this study echoed the results of the overall program, and unlike The Biggest Loser, the show was presented in a biographical rather than a competitive format.  As the study’s report makes clear, excluding the results of those televised “had no effect on the overall statistical outcomes,” demonstrating that television program simply captured the course of the scientific study without manipulating the contestants’ behavior.  This fact also proves that, on average, the contestants benefited from their participation on the show, although no follow up data was taken after the program’s conclusion to determine whether or not the weight loss had long term effects.  While the average weight loss was significantly large, the study does state that “the withdrawal rate was comparable” to similar studies of weight loss, suggesting that the contestants whose stories were televised spanned a range of degrees of success and therefore gave viewers examples of both success and failure.   Like the non-televised participants, the people shown on the television program benefited overall from their weight-loss experience, which proves that at least in the short term, Diet Trials managed to make an impact on the contestant.  Since the show did not claim to influence contestants in the long term but simply to guide them through the diet process for the purpose of research, it can be concluded that the study met both its factual and human goals (Truby et al.).

Viewer Response to Diet Trials

            Unfortunately, evidence of viewer response to the Diet Trials is scarce, as most publications that discussed it simply spoke of it objectively without evaluating its effectiveness on the audience.  While more scientific research must be done into the viewers’ response to the show, an analysis of posts on a thread about the show in a particular internet forum can give some insight into how certain individuals received the program.  The posters, who all claim to partake in low-carbohydrate diets like the Atkins diet presented in Diet Trials, describe an overwhelmingly positive response to the show’s format and production.  User LittleAnne stated “I’m glad that they are measuring many variables,” while another used named Demi supported the producers’ decision “to let the diets speak for themselves.”  These responses are indicative of the forum members’ overall appreciation of the scientific, objective nature of the show, as most users felt the show gave viewers a true picture of life while following these diets and that the results were reported responsibly.  After viewing an episode that featured a less successful contestant, LittleAnne also commented “Do like seeing things, warts and all,” which suggests that by not attempting to hide unfavorable results, the show’s creators made Diet Trials more informative and ultimately more interesting to viewers.  The posters’ only critique was of the final episode’s “lack of numbers and analysis,” with which jarmin88 was particularly displeased.  Overall, however, members of this forum supported Diet Trials and responded especially to the show’s honest, scientific nature.  Since the authors of these posts are themselves low-carb dieters, they are more likely to be critical of the media’s treatment of the lifestyle they endorse, which makes their support for the show all the more meaningful.  Although greater evidence is needed to fully assess viewer response to the Diet Trials, these user comments illustrate the show’s positive impact on at least some of its viewers.

Summary, Comparison, and Conclusion

Description: http://weightlosstopic.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/11/weight-loss-results.jpg

http://weightlosstopic.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/11/weight-loss-results.jpg

            While both The Biggest Loser and the BBC’s Diet Trials are televised representations of weight loss, the information available on them reveals that they comprise different goals and experience different levels of success.  The Biggest Loser aims to show viewers impressive and massive drops in weight, playing largely off the entertainment value of the stories it presents, while Diet Trials was a documentation of a larger scientific study and used its television component to provide viewers with a visual representation of the reported results.  The former show purports to change its contestants’ lives forever, and while some participants adopt an entirely new lifestyle as a result, the failures of others to sustain their weight loss suggests that only in rare cases is the show’s ideal outcome fully realized.  Diet Trials, on the other hand, placed its principal focus on studying the diets themselves, and as a result, its success was less dependent on follow-up information because it centered on the period during which the participants were participating in the program and did not claim to be present in the rest of their lives.  Although information on viewer response is very limited for Diet Trials, a greater proportion of the available responses to it were positive than for The Biggest Loser, but both have been widely complimented for some of the aspects presented. 

Thus, both shows have the potential to positively impact both the viewer and the contestant, but with Diet Trials, this potential is more consistently realized.  While it functions effectively to shock and motivate, The Biggest Loser is best viewed as a source of motivating entertainment rather than of credible information, and any evaluation of it should bear this fact in mind.  With the world’s obesity epidemic growing ever more severe, however, reshaping the media to reflect one of modern society’s greatest struggles is ultimately beneficial in promoting awareness of the issue. Greater research into both shows’ methods and effects on viewers would not only explain further the above conclusions, but also provide more insight into the ways in which each can be improved.  By studying the strengths and flaws of this current batch of health-related shows, the media can work to transform television from a symbol of sloth into an effective outlet to promote health.

 

References

Christenson, Peter and Ivancin, Maria. (2006). The “reality” of health: reality television and the public health. The Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved February 5, 2011, from http://kff.org/entmedia/upload/7567.pdf

LittleAnne, Demi, and jarmin88. (2003). Heads Up: UK low-carbers – BBC Diet Trials. Mombu: The Internet Forums. Retrieved on February 18, 2011, from http://www.mombu.com/medicine/medicine/t-heads-up-uk-low-carbers-bbc-diet-trials-tv-show-diet-4881457.html

Minasian, Stephanie. (2011). ‘Biggest Loser’ contestant Abby Rike to stop by Ione. Ledger Dispatch. Retrieved February 15, 2011, from http://www.ledger-dispatch.com/life/lifeview.asp?c=276399

Rawe, Julie. (2007). Fat chance. Time, 169, 62. Retrieved February 5, 2011, from http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?hid=107&sid=8dd4ff7c-8fe9-4555-b73e-71c874648746%40sessionmgr112&vid=1&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#db=buh&AN=25272209

Sender, K. & Sullivan, M. (2008). Epidemics of will, failures of self-esteem: Responding to fat bodies in The Biggest Loser and What Not to Wear. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 22, 573-584. Retrieved February 10, 2011, from

http://web.ebscohost.com.proxy.library.vanderbilt.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?hid=107&sid=0898ab48-7b70-45f6-96e1-6d0af00c2e06%40sessionmgr112&vid=2

 

Sklar, Bev. (2009). Ali Vincent says believe it, be it. Thatsfit.com. Retrieved February 10, 2011, from http://www.thatsfit.com/2009/11/09/ali-vincent-says-believe-it-be-it/

 

Thomas, Samantha, Hyde, Jim, and Komesaroff, Paul. (2007). “Cheapening the Struggle:” Obese People’s Attitudes Towards The Biggest Loser. Obesity Management, 3 ,210-215. Retrieved February 5, 2011, from http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1089/obe.2007.0065

Truby, Helen, et al. (2006). Randomised controlled trial of four commercial weight loss programmes in the UK: initial findings from the BBC “diet trials.” British Medical Journal, 332, 1309-1314. Retrieved February 5, 2011, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1473108/pdf/bmj33201309.pdf

Wieder, Robert S. (2010). World’s fattest countries, and a worrisome waistline warning. CalorieLab.com. Retrieved February 9, 2011, from http://calorielab.com/news/2010/11/13/worlds-fattest-countries/#more-8477

 

 

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