The celebrity trainer chimes in on the perceived dangers of extreme-weight-loss programs, and the message they convey

By Harley Pasternak
October 02, 2013 06:00 PM
Credit: Courtesy Harley Pasternak

At 30 years old, Jacqui McCoy weighed in at 355 pounds and was miserable. Jacqui felt like a prisoner in her own body. Knowing she needed a change, but having no idea where to start, she applied to, and was chosen for, the television show Extreme Weight Loss.

As she embarked on her weight-loss journey with the show, however, she became obsessed with the number on the scale, and that obsession turned into a devastating eating disorder. Spurred to lose weight drastically and swiftly, she shed a whopping 207 pounds in less than a year – more than half of her body weight.

As a prize, the show arranged for surgery to remove the excess skin that remained after her massive weight loss. For a few weeks, Jacqui looked better than she ever had. But at what cost?

While on the show, it was Jacqui’s full-time job to lose weight. Now that the show had ended, Jacqui had traded one set of unhealthful behaviors and symptoms for another: She was lighter, yet more unhealthy and unhappy than ever.

She hadn’t learned how to keep her weight off – only how to lose it in the first place. She couldn’t sustain her extremely restricted caloric intake and the hours of exercise every day, and on top of that, she suffered from the crippling anxiety that came with knowing she couldn’t keep going on like this – and feared the weight would come back.

And it did. As she transitioned back into normal life, she started to unravel. She was binge eating again, her metabolism was all over the place, and she was having a slew of health problems.

In six months, she gained back nearly 100 pounds.

Since the early 2000s, extreme-weight-loss shows have been a staple of American TV programming. From The Biggest Loser to Extreme Makeover to Shedding for the Wedding, we’ve been tuning in to watch regular Joes duke it out to see who can lose the most weight. I’ll admit even I have gotten wrapped up in the compelling stories and dramatic before-and-after transformations.

I hear people call these shows “inspiring” and “life-changing,” but in truth, in my opinion these shows are doing more to hurt our understanding of healthy living than then they are to help it. Before you dismiss me completely, hear me out:

They’re Unrealistic

Most of these shows involve a “boot camp” or “retreat” atmosphere where contestants leave their lives and jobs and families behind to immerse themselves in 24/7 weight-loss conditioning. Their meals are prescribed and monitored. When they’re not sleeping, they’re working out.

Now I ask you: How in any way does this help us lose weight in real life? Most of the people I know can barely manage to carve out 20 minutes, much less 10 hours. This time commitment to exercise makes for great entertainment but, I think, ultimately conveys a warped sense of reality.

They’re a Short-Term Solution to a Long-Term Problem

The boot-camp atmosphere of these shows teaches us how to lose weight quickly, not how to keep it off. Weight management involves making a long-term commitment, as well as implementing changes to our everyday lives.

Sure, you see the “success stories” on the covers of magazines and in ‘”Where are they now?” episodes. But for every “success story,” there is at least one participant who has gained some, if not all, of the weight back.

They’re Sending the Wrong Message

In several of these programs, the reward for winning is a cash prize. This turns what could be an amazing lesson on life and healthy living into an attitude of “winning at any cost.” So, after eight weeks, the person who lost the most weight (no matter how he or she did so) wins! But then what? The contestants may not be properly equipped with the knowledge or the tools to sustain a healthy life for themselves.

When the camera goes off, the newly thin contestant is placed right back into the routine that enabled him or her to become obese in the first place. In reality, it’s about focusing on the process – how can we tweak our everyday lives to be healthy in a sustainable way?

They May Lead to Long-Term Weight Gain

Some of these shows have their contestants work out for hours a day. First of all, no one should go from being completely sedentary to training like an Olympian; that’s just asking for injury.

A recent study found that some contestants experienced a significant drop in resting metabolic rate, burning 504 fewer calories on average, thanks to an effect known as “metabolic adaptation.” And, according to U.S. News & World Report, as many as 90 percent of the contestants on the show purportedly regain all their lost weight.

In fact, LiveScience reported that two contestants from season eight were hospitalized after collapsing during a run. Another contestant from season nine was treated for exhaustion after trying to ride 26 miles on a stationary bike.

The risk in all three cases was significantly higher because the contestants had been severely obese and inactive for many years.

It Makes People Unlikable, and May Lead Us to Become Unlikable Ourselves

Researchers have also investigated how The Biggest Loser affects viewers. In one study, viewers expressed increased disdain for overweight people, even after watching just one episode. In a second study, viewers were more likely to think of obesity as a condition influenced mostly by lack of self-control.

Finally, a third investigation found that viewers were less inclined to exercise because of how it’s portrayed on the show. Images of people barfing and passing out aren’t good motivators, apparently.

Jacqui’s story has a happy ending. Her good fortune changed when she met my friend Brad Harrington. Brad works for Shaklee, a company that manufactures nutritional supplements and weight-loss products and develops nutritional programs, and he was deeply touched by Jacqui’s roller-coaster battle with weight, apparently exacerbated by weight-loss television.

Brad promised to help her, and did just that. He started her on a Shaklee program that gave her the knowledge and tools that she needed to create a healthy, sustainable routine. With the proper direction, Jacqui was finally learning how to nourish herself healthfully and enjoy food again in the real world. But she still didn’t know how to get exercise without spending hours in the gym.

So Brad introduced me to Jacqui to help guide her through real-world exercise. I started her off with a Fitbit, insisting she never go a day without taking at least 10,000 steps. Then we added in a light resistance circuit five times a week. I showed Jacqui how to move more and work out less by focusing on moving when she’d normally be sitting.

Instead of driving, she started walking to meet her friends for coffee, and spending less time chained to a treadmill in a gym. Between Shaklee’s nutrition program and my simple movement plan, Jacqui learned not measure her happiness with a number on a scale, and to focus more on what she has control over, such as moving and eating.

Bonus: This new approach allowed Jacqui to lose weight in a healthy way. For the first time in her life, she says, she’s in a place where she can understand what it means to be healthy and happy (and thin) in the long term.

I realize that The Biggest Loser: The Lifespan Challenge wouldn’t be compelling TV, but it would make for the better lesson. We need to be patient with ourselves and learn how to make little sustainable changes in our lives, which, in turn, will make the long-term difference.

Tweet me @harleypasternak.