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.