Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Biggest Loser destroys participants' metabolisms.

Talk about setting people up for long term struggle.

The term metabolic adaptation is given to the phenomenon whereby when a person loses a certain percentage of weight, their metabolisms slow by greater amounts. This process may be accelerated with more rapid weight loss as a consequence of the rapidly losing body metabolizing calorie burning muscle along with fat to make up for its massive energy deficit.

And as far as rapid non-surgical weight loss goes, there's probably no weight loss program more rapid that of the television show the Biggest Loser where it’s not uncommon for contestants to lose upwards of 150lbs at an averaged pace of nearly 10lbs a week.

Of course what’s different about the Biggest Loser as compared with most other non-televised rapid weight loss programs is the incredibly large amount of exercise concurrently involved.

While I would have hoped that this tremendous amount of exercise would have been protective against a major drop in metabolism, recently reported data states that it doesn’t.

In an abstract presented at the most recent Obesity Society Annual Scientific Assembly, Darcy Johannsen and friends reported that by week 6 participants had lost 13% of their body weight and by week 30, 39%. More interestingly they reported that by week 6 participants metabolisms had slowed by 244 more calories per day than would have been expected by their weight loss and by week 30, by 504 more calories

That's basically a meal's worth of calories a day that Biggest Loser contestants no longer burn as a consequence of their involvement. Effectively that means they're eating an extra meal a day.

How do you think you'd do at maintaining your weight if you ate an extra meal a day?

The authors also reported that the folks with the largest metabolic adaptations (meaning folks whose metabolisms slowed the most) were the folks with the greatest weight losses. The authors then concluded that, “intensive lifestyle interventions” can overcome this phenomenon based on the fact that folks had lost their weight by the end of the show, not based on what happened to them after the cameras stopped rolling.

Sadly I think their conclusion speaks volumes as to the utility of the intervention as well as their own confirmation biases of wanting to believe the show to be good for their contestants. What it suggests to me is that the folks who were the most severe with their diet and exercise efforts lost the most weight but did so at the expense of much greater hits to their metabolisms. Consequently those same folks who lost the most and the fastest, if they want to keep their weight off, are going to have to work at it that much harder.

While some contestants of the Biggest Loser translate their new lifestyles into careers as product spokespeople or fitness trainers and hence have new external motivators to maintain their extreme behaviours, those who don’t I worry are doomed to regain their weight as, “intensive lifestyle interventions” are not the realm of the real world, they’re only the realm of “reality” television and those whose livelihoods and/or fame depend on them.

Case in point? That picture up above, that's Eric Chopin. He was the winner of the third season of the Biggest Loser. He lost just over 200lbs. He was on Oprah to talk about his massive regain. Think Eric dropped the ball? Not me. I think the Biggest Loser provided him with a nonsensical approach to weight management, and in the process, stacked his deck entirely against him.

(Originally this blog identified the person in the photo as Ryan Benson, the season 2 winner who also regained his weight)

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