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Bridge Too Far —

February 7, 2014

Weight LossFat HealthFat ScienceExerciseEating DisordersFat NewsDickweedDiet Talk

Trigger warning: This post is all about Biggest Loser, eating disorders, calorie counting and weight loss diets.

I need a few more days for to finish The Big Project, which will drop next week. So for now, I just want to reflect on the brou ha ha that sprung up around The Biggest Dickweed‘s 15th Inglorious Season Finale.

The Biggest Loser - Season 15

Rachel Fredrickson

Apparently, the winner this year, Rachel Fredrickson, lost 60% of her starting weight, finishing with a BMI of 18 (aka underweight) and the media and the public have been wringing their hands out of concern for this young woman because she’s now “too thin.”

My only question for those who are shocked at the big reveal is this: Are you fucking kidding me?

Case in point: yeah, it’s pretty shocking that Rachel Fredrickson lost that much weight in a matter of four months and, yeah, the fact that she’s the show’s first contestant to be classified underweight is great trivia, but it’s hardly new. The winner of Season 8, Olivia Ward, and her sister both lost half their body weight and both showed up at the finale with a BMI of 19.5.

Had Olivia lost seven more pounds, she would have been underweight too.

Olivia Ward

Since when did society really give a shit what Jillian Michaels, Bob Harper and Dolvett Quince were teaching their team, let alone their viewers? Where were you last year when three children were put through deprivation bloodsport — NBC’s Hunger Games — and encouraged to lose an unhealthy amount of body weight? According to Dr. Yoni Freedhoff:

[A]t the finale this past Monday we found out that 13 year old Biingo lost 43lbs in the 22 weeks, 13 year old Lindsay 47lbs and 17 year old Sunny 51lbs and though they didn’t announce percentiles I’d venture that each and every one of their losses represented somewhere in the neighbourhood of losing near 30% of their body weights in just 22 weeks. For the show’s children to lose 30% of their body weights in just 22 weeks puts their results right in line (and even in some cases exceeding) those of the show’s adults, especially when considering not fully grown 13 year olds’ resting energy expenditures are likely less than those of fully grown, taller, heavier, adults. What that means to me is that the kids, while not living on the ranch but while under Dr. Dolgoff’s supervision and oversight, were as or more extreme in their weight loss efforts than the show’s over-the-top, run till you puke, never eat a cookie, competing for $250,000/$100,000 adults. [emphasis mine]

But for some reason, this finale really shocked people’s consciences, such that even Bob and Jillian looked stunned at Fredrickson’s final weight.

The Look

The knee-jerk reaction is that Fredrickson “looks anorexic” or “scary skinny,” as some have put it. Although you can’t judge whether a person has an eating disorder just by looking at them, the possibility is there. After all, she has just spent months being pushed by the show’s trainers and nutritionists to restrict her calories to an estimated 1,200 per day and exercise between 36 to 42 hours per week.

Interestingly, Fredrickson just held a press conference about her “shocking” weight loss where she said she attends three or four exercise classes per day:

She said she lost all her weight under the direct supervision of the show’s medical experts and training staff. She said she did it with “super healthy” food choices, and by eating five small meals a day and hitting a calorie count of no more than 1,600 calories a day. Meals revolved around a perfectly balanced mix of carbs, fat and protein. In addition, she said, “I worked out a ton.” That included spending her working hours walking at a treadmill desk and then wedging in extra fitness classes and workouts where she could.

In the skewed universe of Biggest Dickweed, Fredrickson is actually splurging on calories. Yet we’re supposed to believe she got the largest percentage weight loss in show history? I’m thinking back to my post about how all fat people are assumed to be lying about their caloric intake, yet whatever thin people say they eat must be true.

Given how vocal Bob and Jillian are on pretty much every subject, it’s kind of troubling that both of them are gagging themselves on the subject. But of all the people involved in Fredrickson’s weight loss, Dolvett probably has the most information, since he trained her and established a relationship with her. Dolvett took to Facebook to suggest that this wasn’t quite the “victory” it should have been:

Last night’s Biggest Loser Finale has sparked a huge reaction and I do not want the day to end without addressing it. Biggest Loser is a journey which has its ups and downs. Please try not to look at one slice of Rachel’s journey and come to broad conclusions. Rachel’s health is and always has been my main concern and her journey to good health has not yet ended!!

Does that sound like Dolvett is comfortable with Rachel’s current weight? To me, it reads like “Yeah, she looks unhealthy now, but we’ll fix it.” It’s worth keeping in mind that Dolvett is the trainer who pushed one of his contestants to push through the excrutiating pain of shin splints, then went on to shill for Dr. Scholl’s magic shin splint foot pads.

The only positive thing that may come of this situation is that for the first time ever, NBC and Biggest Loser are under the white hot light of public scrutiny, which may affect the next season.  My guess? Probably not. This is the show that made their untrained, sedentary contestants run one mile on a beach and had an asthmatic train with marines, then act shocked — SHOCKED! — that contestants dropped like flies, including one who required two weeks of hospitalization as a result.

NBC knows endangering your health and life makes great television.

But one contestant hits “underweight” and everybody’s concerned about the show’s methods, let alone the message it sends to the families encouraged to watch.

Longtime readers recall that during Season 14, I suffered through every single episode of Biggest Loser and shared the results so you wouldn’t have to, and I crowned the show’s Biggest Dickweed, the Queen of the Bullies, Ms. Jillian “Boob Troll” Michaels.

Although not blogging about Season 15 gave me time to work on some other projects I had planned, I kind of wish I had, primarily because it surfaced during Week 5 that Jillian Michaels cheated by giving her team caffeine supplements without notifying the show’s doctors.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aBcxARcU4XE%5D

Bear in mind that during Season 8 (the same season as the ill-advised beach run), a booted contestant made an off-camera comment that Jillian Michaels was giving her team some kind of performance-enhancing drug, which led to an internal investigation that ultimtaely cleared Michaels of any wrong-doing. But in that E! article, the author shares this information:

NBC says all players must undergo intensive blood and urine tests before and during taping to effectively monitor their weight loss and ensure no one’s cheating. The only drugs that are allowed actually are multivitamins and caffeine pills to help get them through the day.

But it seems that since then, NBC changed its mind and no longer permits caffeine pills. Why caffeine pills?

Well, body builders believe caffeine supplements are a good way of boosting your metabolism and getting an energy boost for workouts. But the research is mixed. Skeptical researchers say that the metabolic boost is temporary, that there’s no evidence of long-term weight loss success and that chronic use produces tolerance. It does say that there’s a “small effect” when combined with ephedra. (PDF).

The most supportive study I could find was this nine-month, double-blind, randomized control study comparing 61 healthy, premenopausal women taking either a caffeine and ephedra supplement or a placebo. Keep in mind that this study was “supported in part by an unrestricted gift from AdvoCare International, LP.” What is AdvoCare? A supplement manufacturer, of course, which includes a detailed FAQ on the benefits of caffeine.

This study attempts to show that after taking caffeine and ephedra for nine months, subjects in the treatment group lost significantly more weight than the placebo group.

Difference

Wow! With caffeine, people lost 16 pounds, but without it they only lost 5.

But that’s not the end of the story. A response to this paper points out significant problems, primarily that the caffeine supplements included a purported appetite suppressant, Garcinia cambogia extract, while the placebo did not. Also, the caffeine group weighed nine pounds more and consumed 350 more calories daily than the placebo group. The critic concludes, “In view of the small weight loss in this study that may be attributable to ephedra alkaloids and caffeine, and the potential for attending cardiovascular risks, it would appear difficult to conclude that this prescription represents a useful option for the treatment of obesity.”

Even setting aside its meager effect, there’s also the danger of toxicity, which can lead to seizures or rhabdomyolysis, when skeletal muscle is broken down and can cause muscle damage or kidney failure. But the beloved Jillian Michaels doesn’t see it that say. “I stand by my opinion,” she said in response to her team getting sanctioned for her cheating. “A caffeine supplement is significantly healthier than unlimited amounts of coffee.”

That may be true when under a doctor’s supervision, but Jillian Michaels isn’t a doctor. And here’s the galling thing: Michaels doesn’t deny she cheated. She just thinks it wasn’t dangerous. But the fact that she cheated is evidence of the pressure everyone involved is under to lose as much weight as possible. Michaels has no doubt read or heard of shitty research like the one above and thought it would give her team an edge.

Sidenote: In response to getting caught cheating, Jillian went into full victim-mode, agreeing with a fan who suggested that producers only enforced the caffeine rule to reset the previous week’s results and keep celebrity contestant Ruben Studdard in the game after being eliminated.

Poor Jillian

This is why I don’t understand the public handwringing over Fredrickson’s startling weight loss. Not only is it absolutely logical within this toxic world, but the critics still seem to be under the illusion that the less-dramatic weight loss seen on Biggest Loser is somehow not dangerous or unhealthy or extreme. Take this relatively balanced Washington Post piece:

And therein lies the whole problem not only with the concept of the show, but the whole cultural dieting complex: This shallow obsession with numbers has more to do with appearance than with actual health, despite protests to the contrary. And that preoccupation with and scrutiny of appearance — even when it’s well-intentioned, as in the case of all the Twitter users expressing “concern” over Fredrickson’s reveal — ultimately undermines healthy weight loss.

But author Caitlin Dewey seems to imply that the problem is with the race to the bottom of the scale and that the problems would go away if Biggest Loser showed “healthy weight loss.” But what is “healthy weight loss”? In the Weight of the Nation documentary, the second episode was dedicated to the idea that “healthy weight loss” is around 7% of your starting weight. The CDC has similar recommendations. But can you imagine the shrug of indifference if Fredrickson had only lost 26 pounds? Here’s the visual representation of what that would look like, after Fredrickson lost 9.2% of her starting weight after four weeks.

Rachel Theoretical

Like it or not, this is what “healthy weight loss” looks like, according to obesity researchers and experts.

Contrast that with the actual final weigh-in that made so many people uncomfortable.

Rachel Frederickson 3

Sorry folks, but I don’t see the difference between the end result of Rachel Fredrickson’s efforts or end result of, say, every previous female Biggest Loser champions, including the previously mentioned Olivia Ward and Ali Vincent …

Ali Vincent

… and Michelle Aguilar …

Michelle

… and Helen Phillips …

Helen

… and Danni Allen …

Danni

… except maybe that the show lasted longer than usual (contestants were home 4.5 months after the last day of taping, whereas we know that Season 13 contestants were at home for about 2.5 months. If these women had been at home for 4.5 months, their weight loss trajectory could have continued to plummet like Fredrickson’s in pursuit of the $250,000 prize and accompanying “fame.”

What bothers me most is when the media normalizes what Biggest Loser does, especially in the case of Fredrickson, like how the Today Show didn’t even ask her about the concerns and, instead, encouraged praise, as evidenced in this chyron.

Fredrickson

As much as I hope Fredrickson’s extreme loss is a wake up call for society, I seriously doubt it. There’s drama here for the media to feast on today, but next season they’ll just keep shaking those pom poms for gladiatorial dieting. So media, save your fucking tears for Rachel Fredrickson and the final result she got because until now it has been referred to by these same people as “winning.”

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2014 7:37 pm

    Reblogged this on Sly Fawkes and commented:
    I am still waiting for someone to drop dead on this travesty of a program. Also, did anyone say “talking out both sides of your mouth?” First she’s too fat, so she was blamed and shamed for her weight. Now she’s too thin, and people are going into pearl-clutching mode. I wouldn’t doubt but what she now has a full-blown eating disorder, because, after all, thin is everything.
    If anyone thinks this show is about health, they need their head examined.

  2. February 7, 2014 8:32 pm

    As if…. As if people on the show have no idea that they are either creating or reinforcing an eating disorder with this gladiatoresque programming? You have been a voice of reason re TBL from day one as have many of us in the fat acceptance community. Too bad our opinions are dismissed as envy or longing that we can’t be successful like the “losers” in the show. Maybe this really will burst the bubble…sadly I fear, something equally as grotesque is waiting in the wings.

    • February 7, 2014 10:37 pm

      Thanks Deah, same to you. I think we need to stay on this show because it’s doing serious damage. But we know it won’t go away until it’s no longer profitable. We have to figure out how to make it unprofitable.

      Peace,
      Shannon

  3. February 8, 2014 10:43 am

    I’m glad these shows are not broadcasted in my country. Well, not yet…

  4. vesta44 permalink
    February 10, 2014 3:43 pm

    It never ceases to amaze me how people will think the actions taken by fat people on TBL are just fine and don’t damage one’s mental or physical health as long one goes from being fat to being “normal-sized”. But let a person use those exact same methods and become “underweight” from them and you’ll get weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth about how “unhealthy” those behaviors are and the person must have an eating disorder. The cognitive dissonance there is just astounding.
    The thing that really scares me is that eventually, someone is going to die on this travesty of a “show” and the only thing that will be said is that it was just one person out of however many have been on the show and that’s a better track record than WLS or any other surgery. Yeah, tell that to the person who died, to their family, to their friends. That is not any consolation when you’ve lost a family member or friend, especially when it could have been avoided by not making weight loss a contest to see who can lose the most weight/largest percentage of body weight in the shortest amount of time.

  5. Dizzyd permalink
    February 12, 2014 5:16 pm

    You summed it up perfectly, Vesta. All I can say to this article is the hypocrisy of the American viewing public regarding this show is mind-blowing. Yeah, spare me the handwringing and boohoo-ing when you guys know damn well that if she DIDN’T lose all that weight, you would be sitting there oinking and making trollish comments about what a fat tub o’ lard she is and why doesn’t she just starve herself to death so we don’t have to look at her fat ugly body and yada yada yada. So spare us the crocodile tears, you bunch of sadistic idiots! (BTW, interesting factoid. An article on CNN talked about how people who go on comment sites and proceed to troll also scored high in terms of having sadistic, narcissistic, Machiavellian, even!!! tendencies when it comes to taking great pleasure out of other people’s pain and suffering. So now you know what we’re dealing with. I know I know, kinda like DUH! But it sure is nice to see that what we’ve known all along is actually backed up with facts so other people are noticing).

  6. Anna permalink
    March 16, 2014 12:30 pm

    I don’t watch this show, but looking at the pictures, what the hell happens to women’s faces when they lose that much weight? That is, even by our culture’s standards, not attractive. That makes me reconsider the all “but you have such a pretty face, you should lose weight” stereotypical comment: “thanks, and I’d like to keep it” could be a good answer.

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