After 16 seasons, the popular weight loss reality TV show, The Biggest Loser is facing a failure in the weight maintenance of former contestants. To be honest, I never really thought that extreme weight loss would come without its share of side effects. No one can lose that much weight in such a short amount of time without drawbacks. Well, more like gain backs.
It looks like researchers have finally figured out one of the reasons that extreme weight loss doesn’t cut it. The New York Times published an article on The Biggest Loser winner named Danny Cahill. Cahill had lost 239 pounds in seven months on the show, going from 430 to an incredible 191 pounds, and winning the eighth season of the show. Despite his tremendous success on the show, Cahill had ended up gaining over 100 pounds back after his victory, and he is now at 295 pounds.
Some people attribute this weight gain back to laziness or simply the lack of the resources which were available on the show, but the real reason is physiological. The metabolic rates of the contests slowed incredibly by the end of their time as a contestant. This doesn’t come as a surprise to researchers who know just about anyone who starts dieting and loses weight will have a lower metabolic rate at the end of the diet. Now that is something I didn’t know. According to this study, the whole diet and exercise equation is missing a fundamental component: Working with the metabolism. Thus, we can’t lose weight by working against our bodies.
This explains why Danny Cahill has to eat 800 calories less than a typical man his size. His metabolic rate is no longer fast enough to burn the number of calories that will satiate his hunger. Anything over 800 calories will turn to fat. Due to this slowing of the metabolic rate, most of the former Biggest Loser champions gain what they lost on the show back. Some, even more.
This surprised the doctor on the show, Robert Huizenga, who remarked that he knew the metabolic rates of the contestants would slow down, but he figured that they would stabilize and burn fat more efficiently in the long run.
In the six years after their wins, most contestants have not returned to their previous metabolic rate. Six years?! Do our bodies want us to be fat?! What’s the deal? The research conducted on Danny Cahill and other contestant’s unsuccessful weight loss has proved that the body will fight to return to its former size, for years even. This explains why weight loss is an ongoing struggle for most people.
Dr. Michael Schwartz, diabetes and obesity researcher, remarked,
The key point is that you can be on TV, you can lose enormous amounts of weight, you can go on for six years, but you can’t get away from a basic biological reality.
Erin Egbert, one of the most successful contestants on the show, went from 263 pounds to 176. She now maintains her weight between 152 and 157 pounds. She is a full-time caregiver to her mother, and she struggles to keep her weight down. Her metabolism after The Biggest Loser burns 552 calories less than what is expected of a woman her size. She laments her cravings for junk foods,
Two treats can turn into a binge over a three-day period. That is what I struggle with.
The slow metabolic rates of these former contestants are not the only thing they face. They are constantly fighting cravings, hunger, and binging because their bodies are not satisfied with their caloric intake. This has a lot to do with the hormone leptin. When fat mass decreases, leptin levels fall until you get the fat mass back. When fat mass increases, so do leptin levels, and they suppress hunger until the fat mass is lost. Interestingly enough, the contestants came on the show with normal leptin levels but left with almost no leptin. This means that they were probably starving all the time. Not many people have the willpower to starve when they’re not on national television.
As the contestants gained more weight after the show, their leptin levels only returned to half of what they were before. That means they were gaining more weight and even hungrier than before.
What does this reveal about obesity and what it is really like? Well, former contestant on The Biggest Loser, Rudy Pauls, sums it up nicely,
The Biggest Loser did change my life, but not in a way that most would think. It opened my eyes to the fact that obesity is not simply a food addiction. It is a disability of a malfunctioning metabolic system.