An Iatrogenic Condition

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Joanne and I were watching Shark Tank the other night and I found myself wondering if the negotiations and business analyses might be so bogus that venture capitalists and MBAs get a good chuckle out of the reality show. Maybe real estate agents, general contractors, and interior designers watch Love It or List It and shake their heads. Since these programs cover topics outside my area of expertise, their content could be spot on or largely misleading and I might not know the difference.

Yesterday, the New York Times exposed the Biggest Loser for some of the long-term harm it does to its contestants and the unrealistic expectations it sets for viewers. Most notably, weight regain is pervasive despite the ex-contestants’ best efforts to keep it at bay.

For myself and other practitioners who use a similar approach to ours, some of the minutiae may have been new to us, but generally speaking, the Times piece went right into our “Yeah, no sh-t” folders, as we have known the show to be fraudulent and problematic since its inception.

Having said that, it occurs to me that for readers whose expertise lays elsewhere, this might have actually been news. If that includes you, and you were surprised to learn about the contestants’ weight regain and struggles, I hope you do not feel gullible. How were you supposed to know?

However, any seasoned obesity or metabolism researchers who found themselves surprised by these results ought to be embarrassed. Data showing commonplace weight regain among people who attempt to lose it has been available for quite a while. Even some of the most ardent weight-loss supporters reluctantly admit that although we have several methods of inducing short-term weight loss, we have no idea how to produce long-term weight loss for more than a tiny fraction of the people who attempt to achieve it.

What we see more commonly, not just in Biggest Loser contestants, but in people across the board who attempt to intentionally lose weight, is ultimate weight regain that often exceeds their baselines.

As an example, consider the following growth chart, which is from a real patient of mine (All information that could possibly reveal her identity has been removed.) Looking at her chart, hazard a guess as to when her parents and doctor first attempted to intervene with her weight. Do you think it was at age 17, when she first came to see me?


No, it was just after age eight, when her BMI-for-age, which was in the 92nd percentile at the time, was deemed a problem. She was naturally a bigger kid, okay, but this fact’s implications have more to do with stigma than health. The focus on weight and a belief that an intervention would help to lower it created an iatrogenic condition. In other words, her weight became a problem because it was viewed as one.

Not only was the diagnosis off base, but the attempted interventions worsened the problem. The first diet produced a slimmer 10-year-old, who subsequently rebounded into a chunkier tween. Based on the research, this was to be the most likely result. As the patient’s teenage years began, subsequent attempts to lower her weight produced similar patterns of weight gain.

They took a child in the 92nd percentile and dieted her up to the 99th percentile, and in the process screwed up her relationships with food, her body, her doctor, and her family, all of which she is now working hard to untangle and fix.

None of that was the child’s fault, nor are the parents to blame, for they were just doing what they thought was right by following instructions from trusted practitioners.

And really, I do not blame the doctor either. Pediatricians and other primary care doctors are tasked with a tremendous responsibility to maintain basic knowledge about a myriad of conditions, everything from sore throats, to sexually transmitted diseases, to early signs of cancer, but this very demand limits them from being experts in any one field, including weight regulation.

The chain of education and direction has to begin somewhere. While these data on Biggest Loser contestants might have come as a surprise to laymen, the researchers who are responsible for the foundation of our healthcare policies should have seen them coming. That it took a New York Times article to wake them up is shameful, but they sure seem to be paying attention now, at least for the time being.

Extreme Disappointment

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In general, I don’t watch reality weight-loss shows. I used to. Biggest Loser was one of my favorites. I was always in awe of how many pounds the contestants would lose each season, many of them shrinking to half of their starting size. But, ever since I became a dietitian, I view these shows in a much different light. Shows like My Big Fat Revenge, Biggest Loser, and Extreme Weight Loss promote dangerous messages about weight management – namely, that fat people are inherently unhealthy and that the only way to be healthy is to lose copious amounts of weight quickly by drastically restricting one’s calories and exercising like a maniac.

Despite my dislike of these shows, I do (rarely) catch an odd episode from time to time. Many of my clients watch these shows and take what the “experts” say as gospel, so it helps if I am in the know about the latest and greatest gimmicks these shows use, so I can help re-educate my clients.  

Last night, I stumbled across an episode of Extreme Weight Loss that truly disturbed me. In this episode, a 23-year-old woman named Alyssa was the individual who was chosen to undergo a year of restrictive eating and over-exercising courtesy of trainer Chris Powell.  The episode started predictably enough: initial weigh-in tears, a loss of 100+ pounds over the first 3 months (Phase 1), and the inevitable struggles to lose weight during Phase 2 (months 3-6).  

This is where things take a serious turn. After Phase 1, Alyssa found that the weight just wasn’t coming off like it had been before. No matter how much she tried to follow the meal and exercise plan, her weight was at a plateau. So, in order to reach her goal of losing another 60 pounds during Phase 2, she decided to drastically reduce her calories even more, at times eating close to nothing. This resulted in rebound binges and subsequent purging. Alyssa developed an eating disorder (ED).

At this point, the show’s producers should have stopped the program for Alyssa, insisted she get treatment for her ED, and take all of the focus off of her losing weight. Instead, Alyssa had a heartfelt talk with Chris and his wife Heidi (who herself struggled with an ED for eight years), and despite the fact that clearly Alyssa needed help dealing with her ED, they continued to encourage her to lose weight and restrict her calories. She was instructed to eat 1500 calories per day while exercising for at least three hours per day to achieve “healthy” weight loss.

At the very end of the program (and after she had completed the program, losing a total of 200 pounds), Chris offered Alyssa a two-month stay at Shades of Hope, an ED treatment center. While at first she rejected the offer, Alyssa ended up going to the program two weeks later, as it was clear that her eating issues were continuing. Why wasn’t this offer made immediately after Alyssa admitted her ED to Chris? Why did they wait until the end of the year to offer her help?

When someone is struggling with an ED, there should be no talk of trying to lose weight, whether it is in a “healthy way” or not. In a sense, the show itself taught Alyssa how to eat in a disordered (re: restrictive) way, priming her for developing an ED. By letting her continue on in her weight loss program, the show did Alyssa a real disservice and gave the message that EDs are no big deal and are just a “phase” that can be dealt with easily. Unfortunately, EDs are not only extremely damaging (and potentially fatal), but they also often turn out to be a life-long struggle, not something to be glossed over.

These shows are not only doing damage to the contestants, but also doing an enormous amount of damage to their viewers. I am hopeful that one day these shows will run out of steam and stop reinforcing the idea that losing weight and the number on the scale are the end all, be all. Maybe someday shows will promote healthy behavior change, without focusing on the numbers. But, I guess that wouldn’t make for scintillating TV.