The Biggest Loser Needs to Stop Blaming the Lettuce!

On Tuesday evening, NBC’s The Biggest Loser crowned Rachel Frederickson this season’s winner after she lost close to 60% of her body weight. Instead of the usual delight at the winner’s transformation, many viewers registered their concern that Rachel was now at an unhealthy weight. Even two of the show’s trainers appeared worried. All this has put The Biggest Loser back into the spotlight as the internet is wondering how thin is too thin. However, they are focusing on the wrong issue.

For those of you who may not know, The Biggest Loser is a reality show in which morbidly obese people compete to win $250,000 by losing the highest percentage of weight. Contestants go to the Fitness Ranch where they learn how to eat healthy and work out for close to six hours per day. Each week one person is eliminated because they lost the least amount of weight and were voted off by the other contestants. The show is quite popular. NBC estimates that 10 million viewers watch each week and it has produced additional business ventures (like the at home club and workout videos) that will make over $100 million this year.

Although I am not a fan of the show, I admit there are parts of it that are interesting. The trainers are always entertaining, it’s fun to
imagine how well I would do on the crazy challenges and it is nice to actually see the contestants gain confidence. However, there are several aspects of it that I find disturbing. Like many of The Biggest Loser’s critics, I wonder about the health consequences of excessive weight loss in a short amount of time and worry about the role of extreme exercise in injury and future expectations of weight management.

I also cringe at the shame contestants endure when weighing in front of audiences both on and off the Ranch. I find the initial weigh-in before crowds of well-wishers (in which family and friends are shown crying at the high weights) particularly humiliating. Although I am not morbidly obese, I do not enjoy stepping on the scale and would feel awful if I had to do it front of people and then explain how I came to be at that weight.

But the biggest (pun intended) problem I have with the show is how it emphasizes the individual nature of obesity. While I agree that people ultimately are responsible for how they live their lives, none of us lives in a vacuum. I think this quote from Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh really sums it up: “When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look into the reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce.” In a nutshell, The Biggest Loser and our culture in general get a lot of mileage out of blaming the lettuce when it’s really more of a systemic problem.

The cost of food is a major culprit in obesity. The food we are constantly told we must eat for good health and weight management are things like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean cuts of meat. Try pricing these things at the store and you will quickly realize that the healthier something is, the higher the cost and that’s even forgetting about organics. If you are trying to buy food that is filling, the cheapest alternatives would be things like rice and beans upon which you can easily gain weight. Even fast food restaurants price healthier fare higher. If you are trying to feed a family of four on a fixed income, which are you more likely to buy: four hamburgers for $1 each or one salad that costs around $4?

The type of food available is another major player in the obesity epidemic. It used to be that we ate food we raised ourselves or was at least raised locally and without major chemicals. This is no longer the case. Large agricultural producers tend to use a lot of pesticides and other chemicals so they can produce as much as possible for as cheap as possible. Cattle are given hormones and fed with food that is not conducive to their health or ours. Being treated humanely is important to the health of their systems and, unfortunately, many of them are not treated well.

Much of our food is raised elsewhere and has to be shipped to us. In order to keep it sustainable, it is loaded with preservatives. Then we have genetically modified crops. And that is all just for the “fresh” food that we eat. That doesn’t include anything about the chemicals, additives, sodium and just plain bad-for-you stuff that is in much of our canned goods, frozen foods and other type of fare that sells cheaply at the grocery store.

Convenience is another factor. Americans live a very fast-paced lifestyle in which time to eat is a real luxury. Many people have 30 minute lunch “hours” and have to smuggle any snacks they eat on the side. Thus, things that are difficult to fix, carry, store or eat quickly (you know, food like fruit, vegetables, and lean meat) are quickly ruled out in favor of things like chips and candy bars. Moreover, having enough time to fix a healthy dinner at the end of the workday can be a real challenge. It’s much easier to pick up something on the way home from work or eat something that’s quick at home and we all know that food that’s quick tends not to be as healthy.

Now I can hear some of you insisting that people can make an effort to eat better and I agree with you. It is possible but it’s difficult and my point here is that society does not promote good eating habits. It tells us we should have them but then does nothing to help foster healthy eating. Our culture jacks up the cost of healthy food, makes eating a catch-as-you-can activity and encourages excess. The supersizing by fast food restaurants mostly stopped following Morgan Spurlock’s excellent documentary Supersize Me but portion sizes are still way too big and many restaurants offer all-you-can-eat buffets for a low price. So, the soil is nutrient poor and there is not enough sunlight yet we’re still blaming the lettuce when the results of this show up in its size and health.

And then there is exercise. Americans in general have a very weird relationship with exercise as we tend to live at the extremes. We either don’t exercise at all or we exercise too much. Shows like The Biggest Loser do not help because they just add to the confusion surrounding just why it is that we should exercise. While people on and off the show give lip service to the general health benefits of exercise, most of the cultural emphasis about exercise is on how it influences weight management. For example, on The Biggest Loser, contestants have what’s known as The Last Chance workout shortly before they weigh in. The push during this workout is so that they can lose the most weight possible.

Similarly, one of the first things people do when they decide to lose weight is start an intense exercise program. As a result, it’s very tough not to buy into this mentality that exercise is mostly about weight management. I’ve actually had people tell me that they don’t exercise because they don’t need to lose weight. The message that gets lost is that weight management is only a small reason why regular exercise is so important for good health. Exercise also plays a role in mood, disease prevention, energy, sleep, memory and concentration.

Another problem with how The Biggest Loser portrays exercise is in the kind of exercise and the frequency of it. While I understand that the players actually do a variety of exercises, they’re mostly shown doing things like the treadmill, free weights, squats and other gym machines (i.e., exercise that is difficult and not enjoyable). The message coming across is that “serious” exercise (i.e., exercise that is difficult and not enjoyable) is the only type that counts.

While there are benefits in doing those kinds of activities, the reality is that the vast majority of people will not consistently do something that isn’t fun and the tragedy is that exercise can be. People often forget that swimming or biking with the family is exercise. Briskly walking while you enjoy the sunshine or walk the dog is exercise. Playing a sport for fun is exercise. Rock climbing, hiking, playing a game of tag, roller blading are all good forms of exercise that can be fun and you don’t have to spend hours or a lot of money doing them.

Exercise doesn’t have to be a chore or done for long periods of time. In fact, exercising a lot can be detrimental to your health. Exercising too much can lead to injury, obsession and time that could be used in other ways. The Biggest Loser contestants exercise close to six hours per day and that doesn’t necessarily stop once they leave the ranch. Season 7 winner Helen Phillips’ family staged an intervention to get her to drop her exercise down to a reasonable level and the infamous villain of Season 8 Tracy Yukich reported exercising for several hours every day and more on the weekends. One has to wonder if they replaced one addiction for another. Thus, there has been either a drought or a downpour yet we’re still blaming the lettuce for not being crisp and firm enough.

In short, our relationship with food and exercise is quite complex and unhealthy. So much of it rests on the messages we’re receiving (eat healthy and exercise), who is sending the messages (the dairy industry, the cattle industry, big agricultural businesses, and the weight loss industry that is earning billions per year) and the reality of our lives. And yet despite some major signs that it is not working for us, we just don’t seem to be getting the message.

Rachel Frederickson is finding this out the hard way. She says she followed the advice of The Biggest Loser’s team but is now experiencing the tough end of public opinion because she has “gone too far.” That is not fair to her. Rachel is just one individual yet she is the one enduring the outrage because we find it much easier to mock and chastise overweight individuals instead of doing the hard work of activism on behalf of ourselves and our fellow Americans. But if we truly want to be a healthy society, we need to stop disparaging individuals and start placing the blame squarely where it belongs. The lettuce is not the problem.

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