Thoughts on The Biggest Loser, from Someone Who Has Lost Over 100 Pounds

by Andie Mitchell on February 5, 2014

So there’s this show. The Biggest Loser. Maybe you watch it? I know I’ve mentioned it a few times in the past, but I’ve never really written at length about how I feel about it. I’d love to know how you feel.

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Let’s start with the basics: TBL follows a simple formula: Two groups of obese men and women are split into teams and compete to see who can lose the most weight. Most episodes have some sort of novelty challenge (a nutrition quiz or test of will) and a physical challenge (some kind of race or test of stamina) where the winners receive cash and prizes. Between the challenges, the contestants are shown working out vigorously — sometimes to the point of passing out or vomiting — while being coached by drill sergeant-like trainers (namely, Jillian Michaels). At the end of the episode, everyone weighs-in and whoever lost the lowest percentage of their body weight is sent home. The last person standing wins $250,000.

When The Biggest Loser premiered in the fall of 2004, I weighed about 250 pounds. As someone who struggled with weight loss and yo-yo dieting for my entire life, I was drawn to a reality series that pitted obese contestants against each other in a quest to lose the most weight. When I saw the numbers on the scale at the first weigh-in, I was in complete awe as many of the contestants lost ten pounds, twenty pounds even, in the first week. I was inspired to give weight loss another go. Eventually, though, when the results I saw on my own scale paled in comparison to those of TBL contestants, my will power wavered. I gained the weight back but continued to watch the show — often on the couch, often with chips, often planning to start over tomorrow.

What The Biggest Loser does well is get people thinking about health, weight loss, and an active lifestyle. Thinking about it, talking about it, sometimes pursuing it.  You could absolutely argue that it goes too far, that it’s touting its list of high-paying sponsors (Subway, Yoplait, etc.) more than balanced nutrition, or that it doesn’t display an appropriate amount of activity (contestants are often exercising 8 hours per day), but one thing is for sure: it has sparked a massive conversation. The show has even spawned many “biggest loser” competitions among friends and co-workers. The trouble with these types of small group competitions (or big group, for that matter) is that trying to improve your health for the sake of a competition or prizes is ultimately insufficient for those people whose struggle with weight is due to serious underlying psychological problems.

If you got all your information regarding weight reduction from the show, you would likely think you need to quit your job and work out for 8-10 hours a day in order to lose weight. They put way too large an emphasis on exercise, and don’t deal nearly enough with nutrition, or the psychology of weight loss — or at least, we don’t see that emotional/therapeutic aspect on television. And that’s hugely problematic for me. There is a reason that all of these people are hundreds of pounds overweight. Of course they will see results when you isolate them from their lives and force them to work out all day, but what about the deeper work? The producers don’t show the contestants learning the tools to cope with reintegrating into their old lives. And as a result, many contestants have regained a significant amount of weight. Or, they develop very real, very traumatizing eating disorders. I doubt many leave the show without some kind of psychological/emotional baggage.

I realize TBL is an entertainment program, and sadly, that it is far more captivating for the masses to watch obese people running to the point of vomiting than it is to see them learning about the psychology of obesity, but the show would do well to acknowledge its limitations for the good of people trying to play along at home and change their lives in positive ways. It would do well to put a focus on real, honest health rather than the goal of weight loss at any cost.

What do you think? Do you watch The Biggest Loser? What did you think of the finale?

*I wrote the above post before this season’s finale. I hadn’t watched the season, but of course I’ve heard the uproar about this season’s winner, and her supposedly “skeletal” appearance. Here are my quick thoughts: We cannot shame her for her body — especially not when we (and I’m speaking generally as a society and a culture) shamed her for her obesity — and we shouldn’t have shamed her then. The uproar makes me want to shout at America through a megaphone: Perhaps she appears too thin to you now — is this not what we wanted from her?! Didn’t we want her to lose weight? Didn’t we tune in?

As someone who has lost a significant amount of weight, I can still feel that pain of “Is this the right weight for you (society)? Am I just right yet?” And I fear that she’s feeling angst that now. I swung from very, very big to, at a time, very, very small — and neither end of the spectrum was without significant scrutiny. I only hope that this young woman can find peace in her body, and a lifestyle that works for her now that she’s out of the extreme “weight loss at any cost” world of TBL.

{ 55 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa February 5, 2014 at 9:28 pm

Hi Andie,
I’m 52 and I haven’t had huge struggles with my weight my whole life- I’ve been lucky. I have had times where I wasn’t as healthy or didn’t watch what I ate- and I gained weight. I have never been obese, I know people who are, but that’s different than experiencing it yourself. I try to eat right and walk or exercise and maintain a healthy weight, but that’s a daily challenge-for me and anyone I think.
I do watch TBL. I enjoy watching people change their lives. It’s inspiring. I must say I was a bit taken back by Rachel’s appearance on the finale. She looked very thin. Almost recognizable from her original photo- but isn’t that the point? Of course we want people to lose the “healthy way”. But we shouldn’t scorn her for her effort. Most of the shows fans tune into watch exactly what happened. Bobby- one of the other finalists was a dramatic change as well- but I didn’t read anything about him in the press today- is it a woman thing?? I celebrate her ability to stay with a plan. It takes courage to start and even more to stay with it. I hope she’s healthy and happy- isn’t that what we all want for ourselves, our family and friends? It’s easy t sit on the couch and judge-I think people need to look at themselves first before they start the finger pointing.

I enjoy your posts! Thanks for the opportunity to voice my opinion!

Best-

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Valerie Mills February 7, 2014 at 3:11 pm

My comment is going to reinforce the general consensus about this program – it may be entertaining, but it’s hardly reality.

Last year I was particularly disenchanted with The Biggest Loser (and this year makes it worse), so i put up a poll entitled Five Reasons Why the Biggest Loser TV Program Should Be Canceled Forever. The reasons were:
1. The Biggest Loser is Age-Biased.
2. The Biggest Loser is Gender-Biased.
3..The Biggest Loser is NOT Real.
4. The Biggest Loser Promotes a Loser Attitude.
5. The Biggest Loser Focuses on the Wrong Measure of Success (choose another measure besides % body weight lost). This year shows that this measurement can get a little out of hand.

The top reason for canceling the show is #3 – It’s not real. People recognize that but still watch it for the entertainment. I stopped – I can’t bear the sobbing and whining. I watch the finale and even that was uninspiring this year.

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Tracey February 21, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Valerie – I add to your WONDERFUL list : It promotes eating disorders and body dysmorphia.

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Eamonn February 5, 2014 at 10:57 pm

I live in Ireland and we have a similar show here (called Operation Transformation). While it is not quite as extreme, and does at least pay lip service to lifestyle changes and healthy living (the contestants remain at home during the show but with regular meetings with nutritionists and trainers) I find the show in general rather disgusting.

There are two main complaints I have about the show, and all of the same basic format. Firstly, the exercises they choose often seem very inappropriate, getting people who weigh over two hundred and fifty pounds to do lots of running or other exercises that are hard on joints even for people of a healthy weight. The second is the repeated and unhealthy target weight losses they set week after week, Almost literally every reputable source you read about weight loss will say that two to three pounds a week is the maximum you should be targetting. Beyond that you are well into starvation mode and likely losing a lot of lean muscle thus making rebounding at the end of the program very likely.

It is sickening to see someone arrive on for the weekly weigh in, after losing four pounds in a week only to get gutted, criticised and threatened with being thrown off the show and replaced with someone “who will appreciate the chance they are being given” because the so called experts set a ridiculous weight loss goal of six pounds the week before. There is something truly disgusting about seeing a panel of people, none of whom have ever been overweight, who have always been fit and active criticising someone doing their best for struggling with an issue none of them have ever had to face and failing to apply a solution that is both unrealistic and unhealthy to the full unrealistic and unhealthy extent demanded.

It is, basically, bullying of the overweight and the real competition is to see which of the experts can bully their poor charges the most so they can be in with a chance to get rich selling their inevitable quick fix books and DVDs.

There is however one daytime TV show here that has a weight loss segment. They have about eight people on it, none of whom are competing, they just participate. Eight weeks in and the trainer / nutritionist guy who is teaching them tells them, week after week, two or three pounds, gradually build up the exercise amounts, do some strength training to keep lean muscle and some cardio to help lose fat. I don’t watch it much (I don’t watch much daytime TV) but the few times it is on during the day I love this guy. He is doing everything right and I have huge respect for him. He will probably never be on any of the more viewed programs but my god, he approaches the issue in a reasonable, encouraging and ethical manner and it is an absolute breath of fresh air.

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Anne February 5, 2014 at 11:33 pm

Hey Andie! I have to agree with Eamonn, I think these so called trainers are bullying the very obese contestants. They scream, yell, push, pull, shame these poor souls. These people are no better than the kids at school that they have probably been bullied by in their daily life. Public humiliation is another big tactic! Can you even imagine how defeated the contestants when they have done all that was asked and “ONLY” lost 4 pounds??? It makes me furious! Then the people go home and scarf up every fat, sugar and carbohydrate they can get their hands on because they have not lived in the real world of normal weight loss. I wonder how the “second chancers” do once they are let loose? Probably not very well because they have not done the head work as you said Andie. That is a crucial piece of the weight loss. People are obese usually for a psychological reason. Until that is addressed, weight loss will just yo yo over and over. ‘Nuf said…
Andie, I am so happy you are back to your wonderful writing once again. I know you are very busy with two books and working with sponsors. Just really happy for your continued success and happy you love where you are right now…guess I am assuming you are happy with it. Stay warm and keep on keepin’ on!!!! Anne

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Anne February 6, 2014 at 1:36 am

I think the show has helped the public understand the obesity crisis in our nation but more importantly to encourage overweight people in their attempts to lose weight. I am very over weight, when once I was quite thin. The show has helped me understand that I can actually do more than I once thought. I used to try to ride a bike for 20 minutes and thought that was really doing great and it was all I expected of myself no matter how many months I was riding for just 20 minutes. Now I ride a bike for 2 hours. The show helped me understand I was stronger and more capable that I thought I was.

I think the show also helped teach the public to encourage instead of ridicule. Once upon a time a very overweight person would not be able to walk or jog in public without serious ridicule. Or go to the gym without stares and demeaning attitudes. It’s different now. More accepting. People encourage rather than point. So I think the show has helped really overweight people leave the house and pursue a healthier lifestyle without as much fear.

They have made it unacceptable to be obese while makings it acceptable to try and change it out in the real world instead of hiding in the house. I think losing weight is similar to quitting smoking. Sometimes you have to just keep starting over until you finally learn the process that is right for you. It doesn’t often happen in a successful straight line.

However, all this being said, I agree with others that the show does not address the psychological issues of why we gain the weight. That much weight gain comes with a reason. We don’t just wake up one day and decide to eat our way through the kitchen. There are emotional reasons for this reaction to life.

I think nutrition has to be addressed and taught more on the show for the show to be really useful to it’s viewers. More than the product placement ads that pop up all over the show. (Yes, I know Jennie O Turkey is better than beef. Yes, I know that Extra Sugar Free Gum tastes great and is only 5 calories even if it does contain Aspartame and Sorbitol.)

I’m well aware that the show is for entertainment purposes. It’s unrealistic for the average person to exercise 8 hours a day. Probably not even safe without a team of doctors and nutritionists standing at the ready in case you clock out due to physical stress on a body not used to it.

So there is the good of it and the bad of it. That’s true for most things but with all things Hollywood, it’s still a lot of glitz and not as much reality as we think for a genre called Reality TV. And yet it’s still fun and inspiring to see those transformations and consider what it might be like to quit work and run all day.

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Diane @ Vintage Zest February 6, 2014 at 2:16 am

I have a love-hate relationship with The Biggest Loser. First of all, I’m someone who has been at most 40 pounds overweight, so I can’t write this from the point of view of someone who has exactly been in their shoes. I definitely appreciate the fact that it shows people that weight loss can be achieved, but not without hard work. Also, the fact that they shone a light on pediatric obesity, a field in which I used to work, is such a great thing.

However, I detest the “game” factor and that there can be lots of cattiness or game play, which is an annoying part of any reality game show. Also, the fact that everything is measured by percentage of body weight is actually an imperfect measure of seeing how well someone is doing, but that’s a whole other conversation. It’s for that reason that I actually much prefer Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition because the competition is only with themselves and they are not in a strange “game show” environment. The people often deal with their unresolved issues and come to understand the reasons behind their weight gain, even if they aren’t always successful.

Back to this season of The Biggest Loser, I was really shocked at the winner’s appearance. I immediately thought that is the one time that I actually hope that a contestant has a rebound weight gain once the money is out of the picture, because she simply did not look healthy. Her BMI (although an imperfect measure) placed her in the underweight category. I really want to believe that her weight loss was all done in a completely healthy and safe manner, but I have a hard time thinking that is the case. No judgment, but I just hope that everyone (including those that have weight still left to lose) on the show has their lives ultimately improved through the show.

My sister happens to work indirectly with the first winner of The Biggest Loser, who gained all of his weight back plus more. Because of all of the previous contestants who have shed light on the dangerous practices, including him, I can’t help but be disappointed in the format of the show. Anyways, like I said: love-hate.

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Pam S @ Nuts for Nutrition February 6, 2014 at 5:28 am

I agree with you and think the psychological side of it is really the most important part. Like you said even if they lose the weight, if they don’t deal with their issues with how they got that way in the first place they will just end up gaining all the weight back.

When I was in Vegas last summer, we saw Rulon, the professional gold medal olympian wrestler who was on the show. We talked to him, he was the nicest guy and was basically telling us how they forced him to leave the show, but he had also gained back all the weight he had lost and then some. Really sad!

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Alma February 6, 2014 at 5:41 am

Hey Andie–

I actually tweeted about this very thing last night. I had seen several articles about this year’s winner of TBL, and it was making me really uncomfortable. All of these articles were being shared by people who are normally body-positive and supportive of women of all sizes. So it bothered me even more to see the level of speculation about anorexia and general shaming about her being too thin.

I stopped watching TBL years ago, after being a fan of the show for some time. I was struggling myself at the time, and I would cry while watching–and eating and vowing to change my evil ways. It was one big shame fest. I don’t know what exactly pushed me to finally stop watching, but I think it was a particular season that really made me start questioning why I watched. I realized it was really to punish myself. I realized that these shows dehumanize fat people by simplifying the real struggle to lose weight. It didn’t focus on health–mental, physical, or otherwise. It was basically the same old same old BS telling us we’re fatter than we need to be because we eat too much or are lazy. That weight loss is some incredible burden to bear that’s really impossible. That the severely obese might as well just die or wait to be rescued.

I guess–as I started getting really okay with myself–I realized all of it was a pile of BS. And I turned it all off. I refuse to live in shame. I still struggle–more than I want to–but I’m better than I was yesterday.

What struck me most about the tone of the articles about this year’s Biggest Loser was that they were really judgmental and non-supportive–similar to the taunts on the playground. The whispers and the gossip. I realized quickly that none of these people were writing about Rachel. They were hating on themselves by hating on her.

I don’t know if Rachel went too far. I don’t know what’s normal or right for her. I don’t know if she needs help. But did anyone ask her? Did anyone question the fact that the host of this show is pretty much the same size? That most actresses on our covers are more like her than Rebel Wilson?

I say all of this with zero iota of superiority. I think our entire society suffers from a fair degree of body dysmorphia. I know I recently judged a weight loss blogger–silently thinking that she was losing too much weight–that she was going too far and was out of control. But I never said anything to her or offered my support. I just had my thoughts. Then, I saw a photo of her that made me rethink those thoughts. She looked pretty normal. I wondered why I thought that–why I was scrutinizing her arms. And I realized my view is messed up, and I was judging her because I was judging me for not obsessing. If I really cared about her, I would have said something and offered support. But, really, I was numbing myself to my own shame and struggle.

It’s incredibly sad that we do this to one another and ourselves.

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Sandi March 31, 2014 at 5:42 am

Shame fest is a very polite way of putting what they do on that show.

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Katie February 6, 2014 at 6:50 am

Andie – beautifully written, as usual. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject. Your addendum particularly struck me because I’m slowly coming to understand and accept that you can’t please everyone all the time. You just have to be able to look inside and be happy with what you see.

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Nance February 23, 2014 at 1:10 am

Katie and Andie……you took the words right out of my mouth. Andie, as far as I am concerned, you are right on target, in your comments regarding the show from every standpoint. Thank you for sharing your viewpoint.

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Carolyn February 6, 2014 at 8:47 am

Like the others, I have a love-hate relationship with the show. I still watch it every season because it does indeed get me thinking about health/wellness. But I agree that it’s unrealistic in that it’s focused more on short-term gratification and sensationalism rather than long-term sustainability.

I thought the winner AND the at-home winner were BOTH very unhealthy looking. They did not look strong and muscular and fit like female winners in past seasons, they looked malnourished and very unhealthy. I was legitimately concerned for them. When I saw the final weight of the main winner, 105 pounds, I actually said out loud “oh my god, that is ridiculous.” I guess when a quarter of a million dollars is on the line, you’ll push it to the extreme. Someone mentioned Bobby’s transformation in a different comment, but I thought he looked pretty vibrant and healthy.

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Ali February 6, 2014 at 8:53 am

Hey, Andie!

I’ve been keeping up with your website for years (obsessed! And waiting patiently for your sure-to-be fantastic book).
Your point about obesity psychology reminded me of a show in the UK called “Supersize vs. Superskinny,” which examines one severely overweight person and one malnourished person every episode. Throughout the week, the pair switches diets, and the nutritionist attempts to get at the psychological cause/specific pinpoint at which the unhealthy mindset began. I think you’d enjoy it much more than TBL! All the episodes are on YouTube, if you’re interested.

-Ali

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Donna February 6, 2014 at 9:03 am

I did watch most of this season as well as a great portion (excuse the pun) of the past seasons. You are right it is very unrealistic to life. I am between 40 and 50lbs over weight but I never would be able to be on the show unless I was significantly larger. I often would joke that I could go on a “plan” to Han 100+ pounds, go on the show, lose down to what I am now and then everyone would tell me how great I am and how amazing I look!
It is so hard to find a balance in life as it is regarding exercise and nutrition. It does seem like its an all or nothing enterprise.
I had lost major amounts of weight before but it was a major obsession that was unhealthy and detrimental to the rest of my life and relationships. I do think the winner was shockingly thin but I think it might be because she is a competitive all or nothing type person. She won the majority of the challenges during the show and was a competitive swimmer in the past so she set her mind to winning TBL and won.
I think the food they eat is very limited but I just might try the Jennie O, yo plait Britta diet- it worked for them ;)

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Beckett @ Birchwood Pie February 6, 2014 at 10:10 am

Mixed feelings. I like the fact that BL shows that weight loss is possible, no matter where you’re starting from. What I don’t like: the “all or nothing” mentality – how many times have we heard a contestant beat themselves up for “only” losing 10 pounds a week? As someone who lost 50 pounds years before BL at the rate of less than a pound a week, I think I would have found the BL message pretty discouraging. And don’t even get me started on the product placements!

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Laxmi February 6, 2014 at 10:28 am

Hi Andie!
Long time reader de-lurking.. I have loved reading your blog.
I think you nailed 2 aspects missing from TBL – the ‘WHY’ : why do people overeat and what tools can they use to change this behavior?
And nutrition – TBL doesn’t teach the nutrition basics that a lot of people don’t get – that low fat is not always good for you and you can eat fats (gasp!) and still maintain your weight.. I wish they would talk about what it takes to get healthy, not skinny.
Their corporate sponsors don’t help either – when Yoplait is a sponsor you probably *cant* talk about how their yoghurts are loaded with sugars :-)
-Laxmi

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Haley February 6, 2014 at 1:19 pm

Andie, this is so crazy. I was just talking about this with one of my friends. I’ve only watched two seasons of the Biggest Loser from start to finish. I really enjoyed last season and found a lot of inspiration from Danni Allen’s story and lifestyle change. (plus she was a fellow water polo player) I loved that they touched on childhood obesity and how it’s an epidemic that is causing this generation of children to have shorter life expectancies than their parents. It was great to see a TV show shed light on the issue and try to help in a positive way. This year appeared to offer the good things with all the stories contestants shared as to why they turned to food for everything but nutrition. But as the season went on, something about it left a bad taste in my mouth if you will. I started to notice more of the competition side of the show and couldn’t help but feel a little uncomfortable. Though the show seems to have come a long way from early seasons, being safer and more positive.. reading poor Kai’s story made me so sad.
I used to think this show was a great tool to inspire viewers and that no one on the show really does it for the money. I believed that people who apply to be on the show do it because they know that their life could be changed.
I got to thinking about it today and now I can’t seem to get over this sick idea of people pitting obese people up against each other. I feel the same way you do about the lack of education on the psychological side of obesity. I think that too many people who’ve never dealt with it on a real level think that obese people are just lazy fatties with no will power. But I can attest that it’s so much more than just a lack of activity or bad eating habits. I am an overweight but active person and I know plenty of thin people with bad eating habits. The difference between me and them is that they don’t turn to food every time something goes wrong, or every time they’re lonely.
I have to say, I don’t think I’ll continue to watch this show. Those of us with eating disorders, food addictions, and emotional issues with food have enough to overcome without being made a specticle for entertainment.
As far as Rachel is concerned. I rooted for her from day one. I was a little concerned when I saw how thin she had gotten. But then I just found myself angry. Yes, she needed to lose weight like everyone else for the sake of her health. But, the spectacle got to her and she overdid it and now she’s being criticized for THAT! I wish our society could get a grip on the real issues and didn’t have such an obsession with image.

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spf February 6, 2014 at 1:27 pm

I completely agree that it’s awful that she can’t win – before people were horrified by her because she was too heavy, and now they’re horrified by her because she’s too thin. Such is patriarchy, though, right? No one’s watching male contestants this closely.

Any kind of body-shaming is fucking awful. Unfortunately, even though the show is supposed to be about losing weight for health reasons, there’s so much fat hate that is inextricably part of it – on producers’, participants’, and viewers’ parts (though probably not all of any of those). And the medical safety side of the show – aside from the already-terrifying collateral damage from eating disorders people acquire in order to meet the show’s requirements – is seriously frightening. This article addresses a lot of my concerns: http://www.refinery29.com/2014/02/61950/biggest-loser-controversy-rachel-fredrickson “”No warranty, representation or guarantee has been made as to the qualifications or credentials of the medical professionals who examine me or perform any procedures on me in connection with my participation in the series, or their ability to diagnose medical conditions that may affect my fitness to participate in the series”? Good god.

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April February 6, 2014 at 2:55 pm

You know, I think there are some good things about the show as well as bad. I agree that although they touch on underlying issues, they don’t spend a lot of time there, and I’ve never seen them recommend counseling of any sort during or following the show. But I’ll admit I enjoy watching it sometimes and find it inspiring for the most part. I rooted for Rachel this season and one thing I learned about her (and loved about her!) was that she was a fierce competitor. She wanted to win, and I think she went to extremes to accomplish that goal. I have no doubt that now that the competition is over, she’ll put on a few pounds and reach a more healthy, sustainable weight. One thing that bothers me about the media outrage is the focus only on HER. All three finalists were very thin, with their clothes looking loose on their frames. At 185, I outweigh ALL THREE final contestants, including the two guys!

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angela@spinachtiger February 6, 2014 at 7:00 pm

I don’t watch the show, but I happened to accidentally catch the finale last night. I long ago gave us watching because I don’t like the focus on over exercise while we never find out what they eat. There doesn’t seem to be any focus on creating a healthy relationship with food. Food is the enemy and exercise the ally. But, it’s an entertainment show that needs ratings and it taps into our love for redemptive stories and make overs. We, as the audience, don’t care how they get there as long as they get there.
The thing that strikes me most about Rachel controversy is that she looks like every other woman in Hollywood now. I’m always struck by the extreme thinness when I go to California (used to live there). When I lived there, I was considered overweight by men when I was clearly not and I was very fit. My measurements were 37 27 37 and I’m telling you, I had men tell me I was too big for their taste. It was because the standard of thin was really thin and they felt as if they were getting a second best type of woman if I wasn’t 34 24 34. Because of this, Thin is what women learn to desire, even when it starts to take away our good looks and makes us boy like, and chronically hungry. But I think the reaction has to do with something inside of us. There is something innately uncomfortable about morbid obesity, as well as super thinness. The super thin look over the centuries of mankind has all too often meant illness and poverty. When we cast our eyes upon super thin, something in us shrieks a little. It’s not jealousy or judgmental-ism. It triggers something in us that something is wrong. Or at least it probably should. This is why there is such controversy. I have a feeling that Rachel will gain 20 pounds of the weight back, which might not be so bad, as long as someone helps her to adjust to a thinner body, and all this attention. She will need a lot of support, especially because she does look like she is on the border of an eating disorder, and anorexia is more stubborn than obesity. I wish her and all the contestants the best. And, I thank you for having a forum to discuss and process this.

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Andi February 6, 2014 at 7:29 pm

I am a fan of TBL.
While I wish that they paid more attention to the components of a healthy diet, I also realize that it is a reality game show and, as a result, has its limitations. Jillian Michaels has always said in interviews that what happens on the show is not meant to be duplicated at home which is why they don’t publicly advertise the amount of exercise that the contestants do. Rather, it is intended to show what is possible if given the time to focus on it.
In the past, the winners have always looked healthy. Some have been thin but never as shockingly thin as Rachel was.
I truly do not think the uproar was meant to be cruel to Rachel but was more out of concern for her health and thinking that TBL had perhaps gone too far. When I saw her pinched and drawn face, I couldn’t help but compare it to the healthy look she had when she weighed 150 leaving the show to prepare for the finale. She lost an incredible 45 pounds during the time spent at home (which is typically 12 weeks).
The show aired on February 4 which, ironically, was the anniversary of Karen Carpenter’s death in 1983 from anorexia nervosa.
I think it is tragic if TBL allows contestants to become extremely underweight in order to win a prize. There should be some sort of at home supervision from the trainers and doctors. Perhaps, even a sliding scale where the prize isn’t “winner takes all.”
I don’t know. All I know is the girl I saw who won that prize caused me to feel true concern for her health.

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Hootie February 7, 2014 at 12:10 am

Hmm…I think I view this differently than some here. I didn’t watch the first seasons of the BL. I did watch the last several seasons. There have been times in the past where I would step away from watching as they focused on drama, contests, etc. I keep going back and get more into it as they make improvements to each season. Previous seasons have shown the trainers working through the emotions of contestants (but more of this would be appreciated!). Examples: Jillian’s mom is a therapist that has visited the ranch, bob encouraged bobby (a finalist this season) to come out to his dad in order to work through that, Jillian encouraged a final 5 contestant to “write a new story” after spinning around the same story of doubt several times, David’s told his story and skypef with his wife to tell her about his emotional progress through his previous grief since at the ranch. The biggest loser appears to take the stance that “it is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than it is to think yourself into a new way of acting” and I can see the value in that. Yes, it is a show with some issues that seem inauthentic or too big business. At the end of the day, it does motivate. Maybe these discussions will push the show to continue to make improvements. I personally think Rachel was a badass athlete throughout the season who did end up very thin. But it is kind of like the whole Miley thing with society comparing her to her Disney character. If you had not seen Rachel fat would it have been as big of a deal?

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Grazing Dani February 7, 2014 at 7:25 am

O my gosh. I was so excited to see you write about this show. It has been one of those topics that brings up so many emotions and thoughts that I get all riled up! I have been dying to read someone’s well-thought out opinion of it.

What has bugged me for years about the show is:
1) Standard of measurement/health: How much weight you lose does not determine how healthy you are. They could very easily be putting on muscle with all the exercise they are doing and measuring weight does not account for this. In fact, it discourages candidates who have already slimmed down and lost the fat from putting on muscle. This is extremely counter productive. At the very least, they should be measuring body fat as a percentage of their weight. But having the lowest percentage of body fat also does not indicate health. They should be measuring various vital indicators of health (cholesterol levels, blood pressure, heart rate, aerobic endurance, etc.). Alas then it would be much harder to determine a “winner” and they would have to do away with the catch title of “biggest loser”.
2) The lack of tools for “success” /making these drastic changes permanent: As you said, they are put in this situation that is nothing like their real life. No emphasis is placed on integrating a healthy amount of exercise into their daily lives at home – if there is, we as viewers certainly don’t see it. The same applies to the “psychology of weight loss” as you put it. These people obviously have a complicated relationship with food and it is not something like alcohol that you can just ignore. We have to eat to survive and developing a healthy relationship with food is of the upmost important for living a healthy life.
3) Importance of nutrition: I really want to see more emphasis on nutrition. Portion sizes. Balanced meals. Different meal and snack options they can integrate into their daily lives. Teaching them the importance of food and how it (and not just extra weight) impact our health.
4) And this brings me to my last point: What kind of message does this broadcast to viewers? The extreme emphasis on exercise and lack of attention to the psychology of eating/weight lose and nutrition perpetuates the notion that fat people are just greedy, lazy people. I find it very dehumanizing.
On top of all this, it sets unreasonable expectations for other people trying to lose weight. “They can lose 10 pounds in a week, why did I only manage 2?” I think this can send vulnerable individuals down very wrong paths.

For all these reasons (and more), I feel like while the show is enthralling to watch, it is very destructive and irresponsible to broadcast. I can’t imagine the people involved feel good about what they are doing.

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Katie February 7, 2014 at 11:14 pm

Really like the point you made about the need to get to the heart of the psychological issues behind obesity. I am not even a person with weight issues, but I have my own slew of problems to overcome in life, and I can’t imagine that a “boot camp” environment would EVER be the right way to diligently and thoughtfully work through them!

When considering how I feel about TBL, I was a little torn until I asked myself: “Would I want my future daughter to watch this show?” The answer? No. Because at its heart, I think it’s more poisonous than positive. The end.

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themexcellentone February 7, 2014 at 11:19 pm

As someone who has also lost over 100 pounds (and has nearly 100 more to go) via WLS, I concur: the mental work involved with losing a tremendous amount of weight is far more significant than the weight loss itself.

The Biggest Loser is hardly reality. I think at best it is sensationalist entertainment.

There is nothing entertaining about having to lose 100+ pounds, nor should it be made out to be entertainment for the whole world to see. As someone who is in therapy to deal with all the food issues, self-image and self-esteem issues associated with losing a tremendous amount of weight, there is nothing about my path that I find entertaining. Enlightening, yes. Entertaining, no. The mental journey is so very much more difficult and fraught with potholes than this show lets on. By not emphasizing the importance of good mental healthcare while trying to lose a significant amount of weight, this show minimizes the importance of a holistic approach to weight loss for morbidly obese folks. If someone who is 100-200-300 pounds overweight attempts to lose that weight, no matter how they do it, therapy is an essential component of long-term success. Doctors should emphasize this as well. I know my surgeon did, and I am glad that he did. I do not think I’d be nearly as successful in this endeavor to finally lose this excess weight and get healthy if I did not have the help of two fantastic therapists, and multiple support groups.

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Alex Chambers February 8, 2014 at 1:45 am

That show can really motivate obese people into losing more and more pounds. Do you think such show can help other obese too? Anyway, I hope having a better health is an enough inspiration for them to do everything in order to lose weight.

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christine davis February 8, 2014 at 11:34 am

I watch TBL for entertainment. It is NOT reality. I do cheer for these people to lose weight and to some extent, the show does give me motivation to continue on my weight loss journey. However, again, it is NOT reality. First, I just read an article about a contestant from the 2008 show based in Australia. He claims they do not work out 8 hours a day, no more than 2 and 1/2 hours. Also, they do NOT get weighed in once a week. He said the least amount of time between weigh ins was 16 days, the most (if I’m remembering correctly was 28 days). So the huge amounts of weight loss we see, again, it not reality. It was a very enlightening article which I somehow suspected all along. I really wish TBL would take the show to a new level and make it more realistic, provide more about nutrition instead of just promoting their advertisers (Subway, etc), more on the health aspect instead of making someone break down in tears. Let’s get to the root of the problem. Alas, the people out there that love the drama would probably not watch. Let’s have a conversation about TLC’s new program My 600 lb life sometime Andie…Now there is a drama toting show if I ever saw one. There is no one teaching these gastic bypass patients how to eat, what to cook, no therapy, etc. They are just given the surgery and thrown back into the life that created the issue in the first place. I think I’ll just stick to eating healthy and working out everyday.

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ciely February 8, 2014 at 11:51 am

i watched TBL when it first started and liked it
then it got cruel, cheesy (product placement) and
just annoying to watch (breaking for commercials as weigh ins started)
It was insulting my intellegence.

The way you arranged your mothers’ diet humanely and with margins
for error not to mention exercice optional, is sustainable and
momentum building.

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Aishah @ Coffee,Love,Health February 8, 2014 at 8:13 pm

Hi Andie,

I must admit I am a fan of the show only because I LOVE seeing the joy that weight-loss brings to people who have struggled with obesity. It makes me happy to see how happy and proud they are about losing weight when many once thought it was impossible. However, I definitely don’t agree with the pressure put on the contestants to work-out for several hours a day at such high intensity. It makes me sad when I see them getting to the point of vomiting and falling down- I find it to be a bit humiliating, if that’s the appropriate word?

The show is encouraging but like you said, I think there needs to be a bigger focus on the mental health aspect vs. the exercise aspect. Emotional health is FAR more important in the long run. If that’s taken care of, I believe the weight-loss can be taken care of in the long run also.

xoxo
Aishah

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Stephanie February 8, 2014 at 11:58 pm

The show is really nothing like the books that they promote. I have been following the biggest loser plan books and in two years time have lost 152 pounds. I agree that most of it is dealing with your emotions and what caused the obesity in the first place. Working on that is key. I actually eat really well on this plan. I don’t deprive myself of anything and don’t kill myself at the gym. But the nutrition that they talk about in the books are really whole based and very nutritious. My cholesterol levels have gone down tremendously, I have increased energy and I feel better about myself. If people want to get the books they will find a more balanced plan and something more realistic then the show. It’s TV. They want ratings. It’s going to be a lot of craziness and drama. Their plan outside of the show really works. I’m living proof.

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Crissy February 10, 2014 at 2:53 am

The biggest loser is great but they screen all of the contestants before they get to be on the show. They want them to lose weight but they also want people with great personality or a tear jerking story to tell to get ratings.I think everyone that’s overweight has a sad story to tell. Overall I love the show and think they are changing lives.

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Cathryn February 10, 2014 at 1:39 pm

I have a hate-hate relationship with this show. Admittedly, I have never even watched an entire episode. Most of the information I have about TBL comes from other sources, so I suppose there is a chance that my opinions are not based in reality. But, assuming that what I hear about the show is correct, I think it is a disgusting display of fat bigotry and oppression.

Fat people are physically and emotionally abused (and certainly NOT for the sake of their health!) to generate profit. This of course then condones the “right” to abuse fat people for their own good because (obviously!) fat people deserve to be treated without basic human decency.

There are even studies that have been done that show that watching TBL may actually discourage exercise. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/png/ajhb/2013/00000037/00000001/art00011

TBL is not remotely about health. It’s about exploiting a group of people who have already been treated poorly, for money. I guess that’s what “entertainment” has been reduced to.

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LG February 10, 2014 at 2:03 pm

I love TBL. It’s like the only show I’m glued to every season (except for Extreme Weight Loss). I believe that the trainers and staff DO try to help the contestants deal with the emotional reasons of over-weight-ness, but a lot of that is left out of the episodes, unfortunately (it’s my favorite part!) There’s only so much counsel that can hapen over the weeks that folks are at the ranch, which is too bad. I think of David this season, who seemed to transform from a victim to taking responsibility for his life. (Of course, I’m limited to what the camera showed, but the change looked genuine.) And Rachel…well, who WOULDN’T drop an extra ___lbs as insurance for winning the $250k prize? It is still a game, after all, and these folks signed up for it.

I know a few people personally whom the show has inspired to eat healthier and/or exercise, and it also opens the door for me to talk in a normal setting about body image, nutrition, and in certain cases, having had an eating disorder.

I wish they gave some more specific tips such as how to know when you’re hungry/full, or which foods have protein in them, or how to talk to your kids about healthy eating. But it’s a start…

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Yvonne February 10, 2014 at 4:01 pm

Hello Andie.
First of all, I want to tell you that you have an awesomely inspiring blog; it’s really good to see someone dwelling a little deeper in their thoughts on subjects such as weight loss and sharing it with the public.
Like many others, The Biggest Loser is not much more than a show, people developing eating disorders afterwards is not something that would surprise me; it’s meant to be dramatic whatever it takes – and considering how popular this show is, the producers really know what their audience likes.
Anyway, I believe that thinking about whether your weight is “right for society” can potentially be one of the leading thoughts into destructive self-criticism, eating disorders etc.

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Katie G February 11, 2014 at 4:46 pm

Hi Andie,

This post got me thinking. You haven’t mentioned in quite a long while where you stand right now as far as weight loss/maintaining. I remember you briefly mentioning in passing a long while back in one of your posts after you did all your traveling that you had gained 10 lbs or something like that. But I don’t recall if you ever mentioned you took it back off or kept it on happily, etc. Since you say you took a while to find a weight you were happy with when you first lost all the weight, I’m just curious where you stand on the spectrum these days! Are you happy? Not so happy? Yes, I’m being nosey…

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Danica February 12, 2014 at 12:15 am

Hey, Andie!

So, here’s the thing. As a fitness professional, I get the screaming and the “bullying”. I won’t go into the whole thing, but I would just encourage some of the nice folks here to consider that there might actually be a purpose for that. I also listen to Jillian Michaels’ podcast, and she’s always complaining that the producers don’t edit the show to show the contestants getting to their “whys”. So anyway, I’m a fan. I think it’s a great opportunity for those contestants, and viewers should remember that it’s not real life. It’s like the surgery free version of a medical intervention, you know?

All that ASIDE, I was so very disappointed in the finale. Poor Rachael. Here’s the cold, hard science. Before she left the ranch for her at home work, the doctor told Rachael that she was at 19% body fat. That’s in the athlete zone, or in other words it’s very healthy.

She then lost 45 more pounds. 45.

No. One. at 19% body fat has 45 pounds to lose. No one. So that means that Rachael wasted her muscle mass and dieted down WAY past her ideal body composition in terms of performance and health. This is not me being squicked out by some subjective opinion about how she looked. She’s a lovely girl, and seems very sweet. She does NOT deserve for people to say unkind things about her. She DID deserve her trainer or someone from the show stepping in when she very obviously went too far.

I hope she can even out to a place of health. I hope she just made a calculated decision to make the money. I hope she plans to be kinder to her body now. I hope she won’t always be comparing herself to this point in time unfavorably, because she really deserves better than this.

The showrunners should be ashamed.

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Jill February 12, 2014 at 7:59 am

I always really enjoyed watching the show. I found it so inspiring – the contestants seemed to work so hard, and it was wonderful watching them achieve better health and fitness. I wondered about how “real” the show was, given how much the people were losing week to week. Just recently, I read this: http://www.news.com.au/entertainment/former-biggest-loser-contestant-andrew-cosi-costello-reveals-the-truth-about-the-weight-loss-show/story-e6frfmq9-1226820498768
So. Not quite true to the timeline suggested. Still impressive to lose a significant amount of weight, but I wish the show’s creators or producers were more honest with the viewing audience.

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Valerie February 12, 2014 at 8:43 am

We are definitely beating up the program The Biggest Loser. Like any reality show, it’s the target of critics. Here’s a stat about the show I found upsetting –

This article posted by a commenter (Former Biggest Loser contestant Andrew ‘Cosi’ Costello reveals the truth about the weight loss show) says that 75% of the contestants in the 2008 show are back to their former (before the show) weight.

What’s wrong here? Why do people return to their former weight? When I lost 25 pounds, it was real easy to go back to crappy food and less exercise.

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April February 12, 2014 at 4:03 pm

thank you for this post. these are my feelings as well about TBL and other weight loss “challenges” and i think just the obesity epidemic in general. is the fact that no one is talking about WHY people are overweight in the first place. well we all know generally how one gets to be obese but we all seem to skip over the psychological part of WHY are we eating the wrong foods or too much in the first place. and im going to go on a limb here and say that i dont think its because people dont know that fruits and veggies are better for you than a daily burger. there are underlying reasons why and no one every addresses them. thank you for saying it. this piece of the obesity problem is the missing link that no one is talking about. because its not tangible, its hard work to work on yourself.

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Victoria February 12, 2014 at 11:11 pm

You wrote that perfectly! I stopped watching a few years ago when all it seemed to be about the money. People were whining and crying over silly things and not focusing on the health aspect. It had become quite disappointing and I found myself more and more annoyed with it. What once seemed to be a show about helping people change their lives to a healthy one turned into product promotion and fast weight loss. As someone who struggles with weightloss this show does more damage than it helps…at least in the last few years.

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Austin Andrews February 16, 2014 at 11:21 am

Andie, I appreciate your thoughts. I agree with you that the show, for televisions sake, has never told an accurate story of how true healthy weight loss should be conducted. I was a contestant on season 11 and while behind the scenes we were given nutritional training and cooking classes, the show never depicted those aspects of our journey. I would tell you that for healthy weight loss at home, 70% of the journey is the food, although after finding your writings I think you know that all well!

Anyways, I appreciate your thoughts and I am glad to have found your blog!

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Phil Varlese February 16, 2014 at 2:12 pm

A somewhat different take from a former contestant on the Australian version of The Biggest Loser. I can’t imagine what happens on the American version of the show is any different than what he experienced.

http://www.news.com.au/entertainment/former-biggest-loser-contestant-andrew-cosi-costello-reveals-the-truth-about-the-weight-loss-show/story-e6frfmq9-1226820498768

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Austin Andrews February 16, 2014 at 2:19 pm

What takes place in the US on our version of Biggest Loser is ENTIRELY different than what took place on the Aussie version. As a former contestant I know.

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Sandi May 14, 2014 at 2:08 am

Twice as ugly I’m sure.

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Austin Andrews May 14, 2014 at 2:43 am

Sandi, I understand that you are frustrated with the depiction of Biggest Loser on NBC. Its a reality show and some producers like to emphasize bigger-than-life drama, including Jillian’s comments, to promote higher ratings. Thats why Jillian left the show in season 12. She didn’t like the perception that America had of her. She’s a mom, a loving woman who is on Biggest Loser because she wants to help the contestants. She doesn’t need the show. She fills stadiums on her own.

While the TV time you see emphasizes the yelling and the loud workouts, the truth that I experienced behind the scenes was Jillian michaels spending two hours on an afternoon to help my dad process through some of the deepest emotional hurts he had. She listened, helped my dad process, and ultimately helped guide my dad to be able to move past emotional blocks that had held him back for years.

I understand that you wont watch BL. I dont expect you too and I’m not try to convince you to. I personally dont care, but I hope that you won’t condemn all people who come from The Biggest Loser. We aren’t all bad. I wouldn’t trade my experience on the show for anything.

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Kim Miles February 16, 2014 at 11:06 pm

Andie – Great post. I so agree with everything you said.

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Cinnamon Vogue February 17, 2014 at 2:06 am

Andie I agree with you whole heatedly with one caveat. A certain degree of shaming, similar to what we do to smokers is necessary I feel. I never resented this social pressure provided it was done nicely but constantly.

But weight loss is not merely exercising. People should be active but not exercise for hours each day. What a waste of a life. A good game of racket ball or basketball or table tennis or whatever with good friends once of twice a week is far more fun.

The key question for weight loss is start with high quality food. The price alone will make you not eat so much. Andie in this respect if you could promote organic antibiotic free sustainably grown food high in nutrition it would go a long.

Of course psychological and physiological aspect of a weight loss objective is the hardest part. but plenty of self help guides like Tony Robbins could be useful. The cravings for food is very real. I am battling cravings for sugar but making incremental changes with gradual reductions are paying dividends.

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Tracey February 21, 2014 at 3:41 pm

The show owes the public some accountability of which there is none. The contest details are shrouded in secrecy and editing.
Further, would someone PLEASE do a study of all previous contestants looking at their health, fitness and happiness after the show ends? I’m absolutely sure that there are some sad and unfortunate follow-ups to be seen.

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Kali February 23, 2014 at 10:17 pm

I honestly do not understand why people are shaming Rachel for completing the goal she set for herself. It is her body and she is happy so I am not sure as to why everyone is giving her such a hard time.

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Denise March 23, 2014 at 12:54 am

Great article. My concern with the biggest loser is that it seems like the weight loss is so extreme. It only takes a week to lose 10 to 20 pounds. Unfortunately, weight loss is about changing eating and exercise habits on a day to day basis. That change helps with the maintenance of keeping the weight off in the long run.

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Jen March 24, 2014 at 11:36 pm

I know a lot of people who get inspired with TBL. It shows that you can really lose weight with the right mind and determination. I just don’t agree with some of the ways others are doing to lose weight.

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v March 29, 2014 at 7:45 am

What a beautifully written post.

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Sandi March 31, 2014 at 5:40 am

Jillian Michaels is a nasty, vicious bully. I would take punching her in the face over a cheeseburger or dessert any day. I lost 70lbs in seven months and I’ve kept it off for 9 years now. I did it without anyone telling me what a weak piece of crap I was or setting me up in a backstabbing, competitive setting with a cash carrot, but what I did have was a lot of people cheering me on and telling me how much they loved me. That pretty much sums up how I feel about Biggest Losers.

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Heather October 24, 2014 at 3:47 pm

Although you know the saying opinions are like BLANK and everyone has a BLANK – you can fill it in. As a personal trainer and lifestyle health and fitness coach, I can not stand nor stomach the show and I have to change my clients thinking most of the time who do watch the show.. there are too many things wrong with it to even write in a comment. I can tell you that if I put my over weight client on my other over weight client’s back and them run up an down a hill, or put in wheel barrel or screamed at them til they cried or made them throw up… I would not have a business and most likely have no money or car or anything because I would be sued for everything I owned nor would I be successful because my clients get treated like the human beings they are.

Heather
http://www.thefab3.com

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