True Nature of the Weight Loss Industry

Companies that are hawking diets and other weight loss products claim to be interested in your health. Really? They're interested in your wallet. Ditto for "reality shows" that feature competitive weight loss. And there is a growing awareness that these products and programs are futile at best and dangerous at worst.

A great editorial titled "Weight-loss industry masks its economic interests with bogus health concerns," writes about the realities of our thin-is-in culture, with a focus on the new academic field known as fat studies.

For several decades, scholars in the social sciences have shown that when it comes to people’s attitudes about weight in the United State, thin is good and fat is bad. Fat people suffer from harassment and discrimination; thin people live in fear that they will gain weight and lose status...Fat studies scholars ask why we oppress people who are fat and who benefits from that oppression, arguing that weight, like height, is a human characteristic that varies across any population. Fat studies, then, resembles other academic disciplines that question discriminatory practices based on race, ethnicity, gender or age.

Essays like this have helped open my eyes to the fact that most diets really aren't about health, they're a form of status-seeking. And this status-seeking can only exist if larger people are considered second-class citizens. It's no different than discrimination based on gender or skin color.

Of course, there's a lot of money to be made in keeping people as second class citizens, as long as they can strive to become like the "rest" of us. And one of the most onerous examples of this is the show "The Biggest Loser." I've never seen the show and have no real desire to see the show- I've lived it. Basically, the show is based on the notion of "competitive weight loss," and shaming and starving people into losing weight. A great article in the New York Times took a long, hard look at whether this show was endangering the health of the contestants.

The series also highlights the difference between the pursuit of engaging television and the sometimes frenzied efforts of contestants to win, perhaps at the risk of their own health. Doctors, nutritionists and physiologists not affiliated with “The Biggest Loser” express doubt about the program’s regimen of severe caloric restriction and up to six hours a day of strenuous exercise, which cause contestants to sometimes lose more than 15 pounds a week.

At least one other contestant has confessed to using dangerous weight-loss techniques, including self-induced dehydration. On the first episode of the current season, two contestants were sent to the hospital, one by airlift after collapsing from heat stroke during a one-mile race.


Medical professionals generally advise against losing more than about two pounds a week. Rapid weight loss can cause many medical problems, including a weakening of the heart muscle, irregular heartbeat and dangerous reductions in potassium and electrolytes.

“I’m waiting for the first person to have a heart attack,” said Dr. Charles Burant, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Health System director of the Michigan Metabolomics and Obesity Center.

“I have had some patients who want to do the same thing, and I counsel them against it,” Dr. Burant said. “I think the show is so exploitative. They are taking poor people who have severe weight problems whose real focus is trying to win the quarter-million dollars.”

The contestants were also required to sign waivers that said "no warranty, representation or guarantee has been made as to the qualifications or credentials of the medical professionals who examine me or perform any procedures on me in connection with my participation in the series, or their ability to diagnose medical conditions that may affect my fitness to participate in the series."

What perhaps absolutely gobsmacked me (though really isn't that surprising, when you think about it) is how the show essentially muzzles any prior contestants who might criticize the show.

Shortly after a reporter started contacting former contestants to interview them about their experiences, a talent producer on the series sent an e-mail message to many former contestants reminding them that “serious consequences” could ensue if they ever talked to a reporter without the show’s permission.

To do so could subject them to a fine of $100,000 or $1 million, depending on the timing of the interview, according to the e-mail message, which was obtained by The New York Times. The show’s producers did provide an opportunity to interview several former contestants, but the interviews were conducted with an NBC publicist listening in.

I don't know about any of you, but this sure sounds like a cult to me. Each time we watch the show or buy the products, we're encouraging such insanity. And I think it's high time that we stopped.


Anonymous said...

I admit I have watched a few seasons of BL (and sent in an application...) They get people who have lived a sedentary lifestyle and make them exercise to the point that they throw up... then they have to keep going.
Now, to cash in on the "success" of the show ... you can get their diet shakes/meal replacements. (And the ad has a finalist there telling us she maintains her wt by swapping two meals with a shake/bar)

After watching my healthy and slightly overweight (I'm talking a few kg over the highest 'normal' wt for her height) sister develop severe dehydration that required IV treatment (She took one of the detox diets and followed the instructions to the letter/doesn't suffer from disordered eating) I realised that they really don't care...

If you think about it, had they cracked some miracle substance that makes you drop x lbs in x weeks how do they intend on sustaining their business/profit. Once all the "fat people" lose the weight there isn't a need for weight loss products. They prey on ppl failing and blaming themselves... quite evil if you think about it :/

Cathy (UK) said...

In the UK it's probably only in the last 10 years that our society has succumbed to total consumer craziness...

Reality TV has taken off big time - because people seem to like it (????). Yesterday evening I needed to 'chill' and slob in front of the TV. On one side was a programme called '10 Years Younger' - which was soooooooo bad. The objective was to make people feel happier and more successful by having an extreme makeover involving plastic surgery etc. On another channel was a programme in which an apparently well-meaning bloke was trying to convince women of all sizes that they're beautiful 'no matter what'... (I wonder how much he earns for doing that...).

Now I sound like an miserable 'old fart' (which I am; I'm 44..), but this type of thing just wasn't around when I was a kid. Women's magazines that featured diets or exercise programmes always included a warning/disclaimer: "please consult your doctor before embarking on a diet or exercise programme".

Now, I don't blame my history of ED on the media or consumer culture, and I have never felt influenced by body image messages, but I really dislike the way people choose to make money today - by trading on some people's insecurities. The obesity epidemic is big business and people are cashing in on it left, right and centre.

Adrianna said...

I don't watch that show, and I never have. Actually, I don't watch reality TV period because I have my own life and my own problems to worry about so it doesn't make much sense for me to watch someone else's. Besides, I doubt that any of it's real anyway.

What really bothers me about Biggest Loser are the people who teach or work in health who endorse it. I took anatomy and physiology in high school and my teacher was a big believer in the obesity epidemic, the evils of processed foods, and a big fan of the show. Incredible.

Urinating bloog? Really? This is a success story?

For the record, I pigged out omn Thanksgiving, didn't feel guilty, and I'm sooo going to pig out again.

I Hate to Weight said...

i've always wondered why the Biggest Loser is legal. i caught the show once when i was sick and it freaked me out. Jillian Michaels was torturing a contestant. i, too, keep thinking one of them is going to have a heart attack. it's really, really sick. and yet SO popular.

this is a great post.

Adrianna said...

"I've always wondered why the Biggest Loser is legal."

I guess because they consented to it, either by word-of-mouth or by signing a paper. It's like BDSM. If someone gets hurt in the process of BDSM sexual activity, there usually will not be any charges if consent was obtained.

The difference with Biggest Loser is that the consent wasn't necessarily informed consent. These people thought they would die anyway from obesity and that this show was their last chance. And I don't know a single dominatrix that stalks her customers afterward to stop them from talking about her.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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