The truth hit Ryan Benson when he couldn’t fit into a seat on his son’s favourite roller coaster: He’d regained the weight he’d fought so hard to lose as a contestant on “The Biggest Loser.”
In 2005, Benson was crowned the first winner of the popular TV show, which ran for 12 years and has since ballooned into a multi-million-dollar franchise. Benson lost 122 pounds and won $US250,000, but he’s since returned to his pre-show weight.
That problem wasn’t unique to Benson — a 2016 study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) followed more than a dozen former “Biggest Losers” and found that of the 14 people studied, 13 regained a significant portion of the weight they lost on the show. Four were heavier in 2016 than they were before they set foot on the set.
Experts have various takes on why this happened, blaming everything from inevitable biological factors to the show’s shaming approach to weight loss. But the show’s producer, JD Roth, argues that anyone can push themselves to slim down by breaking what he calls “bad behaviours.”
To that end, Roth has produced a new show called “The Big Fat Truth,” which is set to premiere June 11. The program seeks to highlight “bad” behaviours and mentalities that it suggests are responsible for participants’ weight gain. In one episode, six former “Biggest Losers” — including Benson — return and try to lose some of the weight they have regained.
“They all say the same thing,” Roth says of the contestants. “They say ‘I went back to my old behaviour and made bad decisions.'”
But nutritionists and dietitians counter that Roth’s new show is another version of what they see as a dangerous approach to weight loss that favours quick results over science. As with many things in the world of health and nutrition, the truth falls somewhere in between.
From 300 to 175 to 325
After spending five gruelling months exercising and dieting as a “Biggest Loser” contestant, the first thing Benson did to celebrate his accomplishment was order a burger and fries.
“In my mind I just thought I’ve been training so hard I want to eat something I craved for a few months — a burger, fries, some ribs,” Benson tells Business Insider. “That was one of the things that propelled me to the finish line. I thought, when I’m done I’m going to get this. It was a reward.”
Within weeks of returning home, the clothes Benson had worn during the show’s season finale seemed to shrink. He caught himself stopping by his favourite fast-food chain more and more on the way home from work to appease his appetite for the foods he missed.
“It was real easy to slip back into old habits,” he says. “The cameras aren’t on 24/7 so no one’s going to see you pick up four doughnuts on the way to work.”
The NIH study of “Biggest Losers” — along with a New York Times feature story on the research — suggested that slimming down for good is virtually a biological impossibility for people who have been significantly overweight. Despite forcing their bodies to shed pounds in an intense 3-month boot camp, most of the show’s participants seemed to succumb to powerful hormonal and metabolic forces that were out of their control.
“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,” Michael Schwartz, an obesity and diabetes researcher at the University of Washington, told the Times last year. “As long as you are below your initial weight, your body is going to try to get you back.”
Studies suggest that people who’ve lost significant amounts of weight produce fewer of the hormones that make human bodies feel full and more of the hormones that make us feel hungry. There’s evidence that the metabolism also slows down, perhaps because strict dieting convinces the body that it is starving, leading it to run as efficiently as it can and burn the fewest calories possible.
Roth has spent the past 15 years working on reality TV shows about weight loss, but rejects this idea.
“I just don’t believe that that’s true,” he says of the Times’ suggestion that it might be biologically impossible for some people to keep weight off. “It’s different behavioural things. A lot of times emotional reasons are why you gain the weight back. There are so many factors that go with it.”
Roth blames Benson’s weight gain on the fact that he fell prey to old habits.
“People start to get comfortable, sort of like how you might get a job you’ve really been working hard towards, and then after you get it you say to yourself, ‘Oh I knew I’d get that job.’ And they start accepting over and over again.”
The new show is in part a response to criticisms from some registered dietitians and nutritionists, who suggested the restrictive regimen imposed by “The Biggest Loser” failed to address what may be potential emotional and psychological issues connected to weight gain.
“If someone is using food as escapism or as comfort from emotional trauma, you have to deal with that,” says Andy Bellatti, a registered dietitian and the cofounder of Dietitians for Professional Integrity. “That takes time and that takes a very qualified professional to help you get to the bottom of that. That has nothing to do with weight loss tips or Bob Harper telling you to run an extra mile.”
Nichola Whitehead, a nutritionist and registered dietitian with a private practice in the United Kingdom, calls emotional eating “heart hunger.”
“Food won’t satisfy heart hunger in the long-term,” she says. “It can’t solve the underlying problem.”
Whitehead advises her clients to take a closer look at when and why they eat certain foods to see if certain feelings drive specific eating behaviours.
“So being aware of what you’re craving — are you craving chocolate because you’ve just seen it?” Whitehead says. “Do you just need to relocate or move the chocolate inside a cupboard? Are you feeling emotional? Is something else going on? Is it a good time to call a friend to talk or maybe take a walk?”
Safe, sustainable weight loss
When Roth got involved with “The Biggest Loser,” he says he assumed he could get contestants to lose about 100 pounds over the 5-month window of the show. When he talked to doctors, however, they told him that participants should only be losing one to two pounds per week. That figure, which exercise physiologists and registered dietitians agree is a good ballpark number for safe, sustainable weight loss, would mean that contestants could only lose about 30 pounds by the show’s end.
Roth says the network told him that number simply wouldn’t work for TV. So season after season, the show’s contestants lost one to two pounds per day — essentially seven times what doctors had said was healthy.
Experts say such rapid weight loss doesn’t give people enough time to create new healthy eating and exercise patterns.
“You’ve got to give yourself two, three, four years of consistent behavioural changes. That is hard work. You’re building new habits. And that takes time,” Bellatti says.
Roth’s new show seems to accept this logic — to some degree. In one scene, he visits Benson at home and sends him out to pick up a fast food dinner in the time Roth says it will take to prepare a vegan meal. When Benson returns with a bag of fried chicken sandwiches for his family, Roth has a fresh pasta and vegetable dish ready for them to eat.
Roth believes that showing Benson how easy it is to cook a healthy meal will spur him to change his behaviour.
“I’m not a doctor or an exercise physiologist, but that said I have more experience in this area than most people have,” Roth says. “I live it.”
This one-off example may be enough to prompt some people to change their behaviour. But for many of those who struggle with weight, long-term behavioural changes are gruelling. Results don’t come quickly, and many people simply give up.
“I’ve seen it a lot with people I work with,” says Bellatti. “I’d say nine times out of 10 the people who change slowly and do manageable goals are the people who three years out still have success. I know many people who’ve gone on some kind of crash diet for a week and lose a bunch of weight and a few months later they’re back to square one.”
Building new habits
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association illustrates just how hard sticking to a diet can be. For the study, 160 adults spent two years on one of four popular diets. For the first two months, they had to adhere to the diet fairly strictly; for the rest of the time, they were told they could be as strict or lenient as they wanted.
At the end, everyone who’d kept up with the eating plans had lost some weight and seen moderate improvements in their heart health. But a lot of people didn’t make it to the end — in one group, more than half of the participants dropped out.
“A variety of popular diets can reduce weight and several cardiac risk factors under realistic clinical conditions, but only for the minority of individuals who can sustain a high dietary adherence level,” the study authors write. “No single diet produced satisfactory adherence rates.”
In other words, as registered dietitian nutritionist Kara Lydon likes to say, “Diets don’t work.”
It’s a finding that squares with what many dietitians recommend — that the best eating plan is simply the one you can stick with.
“If you don’t take the time to help somebody set up realistic, sustainable behaviours that they can keep up over time, gaining weight and going back into old habits is inevitable,” says Bellatti.
For many people, losing weight means committing to a different lifestyle — one that in large part is not supported by the dietary options made available to us.
“We live in a society where making healthy choices and being at a healthy weight, it’s not defaulted toward that,” says Bellatti. “Unhealthy foods are cheaper and they’re everywhere; if you go to any store, you can buy a candy bar at the checkout but not a piece of fruit.”
Nevertheless, he maintains that losing weight and keeping it off is possible.
“It can be very challenging, and you need to stay on top of a lot of things, but I know a good number of people who’ve lost a significant amount of weight over a long time.”
Ryan Benson says his experience on Roth’s new show did encourage him to make changes to his diet and lifestyle. But he’s also made use of several tools outside of the show’s guidelines, such as learning how to prepare healthy food and becoming involved in the healthy food scene in his Los Angeles neighbourhood.
“I think [“The Big Fat Truth”] set me on the right path,” says Benson, though he adds, “it’s a lifetime struggle.”
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