Monday, January 14, 2008

The genetics contest called The Biggest Loser

It has become one of NBC's flagship shows.

Dozens of Americans meet at a ranch vying for half a million dollars during a weight loss contest.

The first 4 months they spend working out on the ranch all day long under the supervision of trainers and eating prepared low calorie meals.

Contestants compete in the requisite competitions, many of which involve the ridiculous "food temptations", but most of which involve feats of physical strength or endurance.

After 4 months on the ranch the remaining folks (people get voted off each week) go home and spend I believe an additional 6 months trying to lose weight on their own until finally they all return and get weighed and the person who lost the most weight (as a percentage of their initial weight) wins.

Perhaps the most dramatic part of the show are the weekly weigh ins on the incredibly over-sized scale that builds suspense by displaying the contestants' weights bouncing around for some time before finally displaying how much they've lost that week.

Weigh-in wise, week after week the numbers are dramatically fluctuant with some weeks folks losing more than 5% of the previous week's weight and others, virtually nothing. Those variations are simply a reflection of different degrees of hydration and they don't really interest me - what interests me is the fact that consistently, season after season, some people simply lose faster than others with a cadre of contestants usually losing weight twice as fast as another cadre of slower losers.

So the fast losers - do you think they're eating half as much and working out twice as hard? Do they have double the "willpower" of the people who simply don't lose quicker? Are they twice as motivated?

Of course not - as is clearly evidenced by the television show, everyone on that ranch is busting their butts exercising and eating low calorie meals as they all have the added motivational benefits of unlimited time and resources, millions of national viewers and let's not forget the $250,000 carrot dangling in front of them.

So what's the difference?


Weight loss is not simply a one to one relationship between how many calories you eat and how many calories you burn. The body's a big black box with food going in the top and coming out the bottom but in between there are dramatic between person differences in how calories are handled. The result of course- some people lose weight far easier than others.

My conclusion therefore?

The show's all about genes.

Oh, and there are two winners on the show by the way. There's the "Biggest Loser" from the folks who don't get voted off earlier on and then there's the person from the folks who were voted off who loses the most.

The two winners from last year?

Identical twins.

UPDATE: A reader pointed out that in fact the contestants cook for themselves on the ranch - certainly this would allow for more variability, but still not enough to account for such wide divergences in weight loss.