Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"The Biggest Loser" is the roadside accident of television

As I've mentioned before, I don't get the chance to watch a lot of TV. I have nothing philosophical against it, I just don't have the time.

Even during my two-plus months of unemployment, there have always been freelance articles to work on, kids activities to attend, household cleaning and chores to take care of, and (lately) blog posts to write. Not a lot of time to sit in front of the flat screen and chill out.

But there are certain things I make a point of watching. And "The Biggest Loser" is one of them.

I love "The Biggest Loser." So does most of my family. It's one of the few shows we'll DVR and watch together.

If you ask me why I love this program so much, I'll hesitate. Because I'm not really sure what it is that attracts me. I like seeing people transform their lives. I like the drama and the competition. And I can certainly relate to the weight loss aspect of it these days.

But if I'm being honest with myself, I will say the thing that mesmerizes me is the emotional aspect of the show. Yes, what the contestants are doing (attempting to lose mass amounts of weight in a relatively short period of time) is ostensibly a biological undertaking. They're constantly working out. They're changing their eating habits.

Yet there is always an underlying psycho-emotional story for everyone on the show. And the producers do their best to exploit that. It makes for good TV when the 25-year-old, 450-pound woman breaks down and starts talking about the thought patterns and habits that have gotten her to the point of diabetes, coronary artery disease, and a host of other health problems.

I always feel like I'm prying when they show these emotional swan dives on the air. Like it's something I'm not supposed to see and I should be looking away.

But I can't help it. I stare at the screen the same way I would stare at an accident in which body parts are strewn across an expressway. Part of you knows you don't want to get involved, but another part is incapable of disengaging.

We do that, I think, because it makes us feel better about ourselves. "I may be 20 pounds overweight, but at least I'm not like HIM," we'll think. But for me, it's also because I'm looking for a reason to root for these people, and I'm much more likely to wave the flag for someone who has legitimate emotional issues that manifest themselves in overeating. I want them to do well. I want them to get better. I want them to win.

There's another part of "The Biggest Loser" that makes me uncomfortable, and that's the amount of weight these contestants lose. It's one thing to drop double-digit pounds your first week or two on the ranch. It's another to keep losing that much weight nine or 10 weeks later.

Is that healthy? I know they're under medical supervision and that they devote their daily lives to exercise and diet. But it creates an incredibly unrealistic expectation among viewers who may not know the basics of healthy weight loss.

I hear it among people at my Weight Watchers meetings all the time. "Yeah," someone will say, "I only lost three pounds this week. It was kind of disappointing." WHAT?!? Disappointing? You should be thrilled at losing three pounds in a week. In fact, if anything, you should worry that you're losing the weight too quickly if you lose three pounds several weeks in a row.

I have to say, it has taken me years to learn this, but a half-pound or one-pound weight loss per week is ideal. Both emotionally and physically. The hardest thing for me about losing weight is not adjusting my approach to food, but rather adjusting my expectations of the results. Slow and steady is far, far, FAR more likely to result in sustained, long-term weight loss than rapidly dropping the pounds.

Which, again, I think is a lesson not being taught to "Biggest Loser" fans who may not have done the homework themselves or who are rookies in the weight loss game. No, ma'am, you are NOT going to drop 11 pounds this coming week like Gina, the middle-aged contestant who has already lost 83 pounds in the previous two months. Nor SHOULD you.

But still, I watch. And I will continue watching. As with any reality show, you quickly identify your favorites and start pulling for them. I want all of them to do well.

I just wish I didn't care so much about the fact that their mothers fed them unhealthy food their whole lives or that the four miscarriages caused them to go on eating binges. It's interesting information, but I can't help but think it's none of my business.

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