I'm the poster child for what a Biggest Loser contestant could be. Once upon a time, I weighed more than 300lb. For more than a decade, I've healthily, happily maintained a 150lb weight loss.
So maybe it's somewhat surprising that when The New York Times published a story on research showing that those who had success on the show usually gained everything back, and sometimes more, I thought, "Yep. Makes sense."
What researcher Kevin Hall found startled him: when people lose that much weight that quickly, their metabolism gets thrown out of whack, making them unable to burn the calories necessary to maintain their new weight. It's a classic catch-22: you need to burn calories to lose a bunch of weight, but losing a bunch of weight makes you burn fewer calories. One successful contestant burned 800 fewer calories per day at his new weight than would be expected of someone who hadn't formerly been obese.
In short, the deck is stacked against overweight people before they step foot on a treadmill, not to mention the mental and emotional toll of these physiological effects. Yet here I am, a great example of the results that contestants on The Biggest Loser could (and should) be getting.
Why am I still the exception to the rule?
"Eat less, exercise more" doesn't really work
From the start, I was the biggest kid in every school photo. While other kids in my neighborhood dreamed of going to Disney, I dreamed of going to fat camp. By the time I was 10 I'd already lost and gained weight a dozen times.
No matter where I turned, the message was clear: eat less, exercise more, and you'll lose weight. Then, just stick to a reasonable maintenance plan, and you won't gain it back. But no matter how hard I tried to eat less and exercise more, I just couldn't seem to lose weight. The few times I did, I couldn't maintain it.
In fact, until I started focusing on why and how I made certain food- and other self-care-related decisions, every time I tried to lose weight I ended up heavier on the other side. In fact, before I shifted my focus, the more intense my effort to lose weight, the quicker I gained it back.
And I was in the process of proving that for the last time in 2004, the same year The Biggest Loser started airing.
Not even weight-loss surgery is a guarantee
In early 2003, I had weight-loss surgery, arguably the biggest effort one can make to lose weight. I bottomed out at 140, and wouldn't you know it, I immediately started gaining it back.
I admit that I wasn't exercising -- yet -- but food has a much bigger impact on weight than exercise ever could. Since my stomach was the size of an egg, you'd think I would've been immune to putting on all the weight I lost.
But even folks who have weight-loss surgery are likely to regain their lost weight, so long as there are calories in liquids and pre-masticated processed foods around every corner.
This might be the most damaging aspect of The Biggest Loser: It fuels the fantasy so many of us have that if we could just eat small portions, and exercise like a beast every day for some magical number of days or months, those behaviors would become habitual. We would never revert back to our old habits. We would never gain back the weight.