They exercised for hours a day and then subsisted on small meals. Contestants on “The Biggest Loser” saw dramatic weight loss but were their results sustainable?
A new study suggests the program may have wreaked havoc on contestants’ metabolisms, making maintenance near impossible to keep up. The findings are based on studying the trajectory of a season’s participants in the aftermath of the show.
“It is frightening and amazing…I am just blown away,” Dr. Kevin Hall, a Canadian working as a scientist at the National Institutes of Health in the U.S., and lead author of the study, told the New York Times.
He told Global News he came home from work one day, flipped through the channels and stumbled upon an old season of the popular reality TV show.
“I saw people stepping on the scale and losing massive amounts of weight every week and I just needed to understand what was going on with their bodies while this massive weight loss was occurring,” he said.
He got in touch with the show’s producers and began a collaboration, recording contestants’ health measures.
The research, out of the National Institutes of Health, is the first glimpse at what happens over a years-long period to Biggest Loser contestants once the show wraps up and the trainers and nutritionists leave their side.
Fourteen people from Season 8 were included in the study. Turns out, their “resting metabolism” – how many calories you’re burning when at rest – was, in simplest forms, destroyed post-show.
When dieters lose weight, their metabolism will, in turn, decrease, too. As Hall explains it, bigger people burn more calories so as their weight creeps down, so should their energy expenditures.
In participants’ cases, however, they’d regain weight but their metabolisms didn’t speed up with the higher numbers on the scale. As the NYT describes it, their bodies “fought to regain weight.”
“These folks lost all this weight but despite all this exercise their metabolism slowed dramatically … many of them had regained a substantial amount of weight but their metabolism stayed so low,” he told Global News.
“It was as if their bodies were intensifying their effort to pull the contestants back to their original weight,” the newspaper explained.
Take Danny Cahill, for example. He won Season 8, losing 239 pounds in seven months – the most anyone has ever shed on the program. In 2009, the 5’11” man started the show at 430 pounds but wrapped up the season weighing 191 pounds.
Ultimately, Cahill regained more than 100 pounds. His metabolism stalled, so to maintain his current weight of 295 pounds, he has limit his food intake to 800 calories a day less than a typical man his size.
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff says that’s why your metabolism is critical to weight loss and weight maintenance.
“The vast majority of calories we burn in the daytime come from our resting metabolic contribution,” he told Global News. He says this energy expenditure is responsible for about 70 per cent of the calories we burn in a day, maybe even more.
“As a consequence for their experiences from the television show, they are burning a meal fewer calories than they should be per day and that may help explain why we don’t see many Biggest Loser reunion shows on television,” Freedhoff said.
(The metabolism drop off was so steep and so shocking, Freedhoff said Hall and his team flew their metabolic cart used six years ago to the NIH to compare its results with the NIH’s to make sure theirs wasn’t faulty.)
Eight hundred calories is enough to cover a burger and fries, to put it in perspective, he said. To maintain their weight, contestants would have to keep up with their rigorous exercising from the show or scale back by an entire meal a day – both pretty unfeasible sacrifices.
Ali Vincent, another Biggest Loser winner, who lost 48 per cent of her body weight, admitted in a Facebook post last month that she had regained most of the weight.
“I swore I would never be there again, be here again. I couldn’t imagine a day again that I would weigh over 200 pounds. I feel ashamed. I feel embarrassed. I feel overwhelmed. I feel like a failure,” Vincent wrote.
In a new post shared on People, Vincent said the study is shedding light on questions she and many contestants have had to deal with. She and her peers wondered, for years, why their hard work wasn’t paying off like it was for their counterparts who hadn’t been on the show.
Hall says it’s unclear if it’s the rapid weight loss on the show that’s triggered this metabolism meltdown or if other factors are at play.
But there is a silver lining: the group, as a whole, managed to keep off 10 per cent of their weight loss through the six years. They also exercised more and didn’t develop Type 2 diabetes, he noted.
Freedhoff says it’s unclear if the weight was kept off because of the public scrutiny the group faces for being in the limelight for their size.
“They all tell me they’re judged and scrutinized by the public because they’re well recognized that’s the added pressure the average person doesn’t have,” he told Global News.