Lessons From “The Biggest Loser” Fallout

A few days ago the NY Times posted an article about the popular weight-loss show “The Biggest Loser” and how some of its former contestants had fared in the months and years after participating. As it turns out... they hadn’t done well. Just about all of the contestants had gained the weight back and were as unhealthy as ever. I’ve long thought “The Biggest Loser” to be an absolute mockery of health and wellness so I can’t say the findings were especially surprising, but I’ve had more than a few clients and gym goers bring it up so I thought it would serve as a launching point for further discussion.

While I wasn’t crazy about the faintly hopeless tone of the article (as in, ‘diet and exercise doesn’t work and we’re all doomed to be fat’), there were some useful takeaways. The big observation was that the metabolisms of former participants had been severely damaged from the weight-loss protocols mandated by the show. We often hear about ‘fast metabolism’ or ‘slow metabolism’, but I find far too little thought is put towards how diet and exercise actually affect this oh-so important measurement. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts and musings that the Times article got me thinking about.

Caloric Restriction and Crash Dieting Doesn’t Work

I should say right from the start that I’ve watched very little of “The Biggest Loser”. I’ve tried more than once, but I always have to suppress the urge to throw the remote through the TV screen so I end up turning it off. I will concede that I don’t know all of the methods that their ‘experts’ use, so I admit that I’m making some generalizations based on what little exposure I have.

That being said, it appears to me that the majority of the dietary advice given on the show comes down to, in some way or another, caloric restriction. In other words, eating less. If you eat fewer calories than you burn, then you’ll lose weight. It seems simple enough, but it’s a dangerous oversimplification.

The trouble is that if you suddenly cut back on the amount of food that you eat, your body doesn’t have any way of realizing that you’re willfully choosing to eat less. We have countless generations of evolution behind us that have trained our bodies to think that if there’s less food coming in, there’s less food available. More than once I’ve heard of crash dieters jokingly refer to ‘starving’ themselves… and that’s exactly what your body thinks is happening.

And as much as you may wish it, your body isn’t simply content to say “Hey, famine? No problem, we’ve got a spare tire that we can burn!”. Our bodies are always striving to be in a state of equilibrium, so if less energy is coming in, we adjust so that less energy is being used. Here’s a simple example. Say that you burn 1800 calories a day, and you eat the same 1800. If you drop your food intake to 1400, you now have a caloric deficit, soooo… weight loss! Maybe a bit, but while your body will catabolize some fat (and muscle, which is a big problem) to make up the difference, it’s also going to to adjust so that you no longer need to burn the same 1800 calories. Maybe your caloric need drops to 1600, which means you have to eat even less... Which means your body thinks the famine is worse, so your metabolism slows even more, which means you eat less, and ‘round and ‘round we go.  If we follow this cycle to its logical conclusion, there are really only two ways it can go: One, you either die or get very sick. Or two, the cycle mercifully stops and you eat more. The trouble is the damage is already done and your body’s metabolism has slowed dramatically, so now the ‘normal’ amount of food is a caloric surplus, and you gain weight back very quickly.

Which brings us back to the NY Times article about our unfortunate contestants. A drastically slowed metabolism is exactly the result that these poor people saw, and severe calorie-cutting diets are a big culprit. To me the most terrifying bit is just how long the damage appears to last, in that the contestants that were followed for the study have been free and clear of the show for six years. A handful of weeks and months of severe crash dieting led to years of damage with no end in sight. Think twice before fooling your body into starvation.

Working Out Isn’t About Burning Calories

Here’s some advice… If you’re considering a new workout program and one of the lines in the sales pitch is ‘burns X calories in a 30-minute class’, just run in the other direction. Anybody that puts that as a highlight of a workout program either doesn’t understand what they’re talking about, or (perhaps even worse) does know what they’re talking about and is manipulating you. The number of calories you ‘burn’ during the time where you’re working out is hardly even worth considering. It’s a battle that you will never, ever, ever win. You’ve probably seen those seemingly depressing comparisons to the like of ‘1 donut = 45 minutes on the treadmill’, or “you have to run for 30 minutes to burn off 3 girl scout cookies’. Trying to match calories-in one-for-one with minutes of exercise is near impossible.  

So if it’s not about burning calories while exercising… what then? Achieving a favorable caloric balance is about burning calories while you’re not exercising. Confusing, I know. But the truth is that even if you’re a hard-training athlete, the calories that are burned during exercise and physical activity are a relatively small portion of the energy your body consumes throughout the day (roughly 10%-25%). The vast majority of what’s left is consumed while at rest, aptly referred to as resting metabolic rate (RMR). People who are fit and lean and healthy don’t get there just by burning more calories during their workouts than you do, they get there by having a higher RMR.

So back to our contestants on the biggest loser. The two major observations were that their resting metabolic rates had fallen, and that they gained the weight back. I’ll say again that I’ve seen very little of the actual show, but the bit of exercise that I have caught has been all about ‘burning calories’. I can’t say I’ve seen or heard of much consideration happening to their overall metabolism, which as these people have unfortunately discovered, turns out is critically important.

So when it comes to judging the success of a workout for weight loss the question shouldn’t be how many calories do I burn if I exercise for an hour, but how does this workout help me to burn calories during the other twenty three hour. More on that shortly.

“Cardio” Is a Poor Choice For Weight Loss and Body Composition

One reason is probably pretty obvious in that we just discussed it… The perceived value of cardio exercise (which for now I’ll consider 30+ minutes of low-to-medium intensity exercise) is based on the idea of ‘burning’ calories, which we now know is neither realistic or even all that useful. But not only is the concept of calorie-burning with cardio exercise not especially effective, it can be downright destructive.

The human body is remarkably adaptive. If we spend enough time exposing ourselves to a particular stimulus then our body changes accordingly. If you spend enough hours with a yoga practice and challenge yourself with difficult stretches and poses then your body adapts by improving muscle flexibility and joint mobility. If you train with weights you stress your muscles enough so that they supercompensate and grow stronger to better handle that stress the next time.

So then how are we telling our body to adapt with prolonged exposure to Cardio? Well it’s true that if you spend enough time during a single session with this type of exercise and get your heartrate to a particular place, your body will start to burn a higher percentage of calories from fat. Proponents of this type of workout may refer to this as the ‘fat-burning zone’. Good news, right? Well the trouble is that with repeated efforts of ‘burning’ fat in this way, your body is going to start to get better at storing fat. I’ll say it again: overexposure to ‘Cardio’ trains your body to store fat. You’re probably thinking in the short term (“how many calories am I burning right now?”), but your body thinks in the long term (“If we’re going to keep this up, I guess we should have more fuel for next time”) and adapts accordingly. Thinking that you can ‘burn’ through fat during cardio exercise is like thinking that you can shrink your muscles with weight training. In the long run, the opposite is true.

And as if that wasn’t enough, adaptation to cardio exercise has another negative effect. The more you do it, the more efficient you get at it. Now if you’re a competitive marathoner or perhaps in a survival scenario, efficient calorie expenditure is a good thing. But if you’re trying to lose weight, it’s a horrible thing. It means that while you may burn 500 calories that first workout, after a while you’re only burning 475, and after even more practice maybe you’re down to 450. You burn fewer calories while while simultaneously teaching your body to store more of them. And if this sounds familiar to the downregulation of RMR that we discussed earlier, gold star for you.

So one last time let’s circle back to our “Biggest Loser” contestants. The majority of exercise that I’m aware of on the show can largely be classified as ‘Cardio’. Lots of time spent running and on the treadmill. And no, I haven’t seen every episode, but I’ve seen enough Planet Fitness/Biggest Loser cross-branded elliptical machines that I feel fairly safe in my assumption. So if we apply what we know about cardio and its negative effects, it’s pretty easy to see why the weight was gained back so easily: because they spent so much time unintentionally training their bodies to more effectively store fat. If you don’t believe me, talk to anybody that’s spent serious time training for a marathon or other endurance sport, and ask what happens when the training tails off afterward. I’ll give you good odds that they say the pounds come back on pretty quickly.

Eat and Train for Muscle and Power

One reason is probably pretty obvious in that we just discussed it… The perceived value of cardio exercise (which for now I’ll consider 30+ minutes of low-to-medium intensity exercise) is based on the idea of ‘burning’ calories, which we now know is neither realistic or even all that useful. But not only is the concept of calorie-burning with cardio exercise not especially effective, it can be downright destructive.

The human body is remarkably adaptive. If we spend enough time exposing ourselves to a particular stimulus then our body changes accordingly. If you spend enough hours with a yoga practice and challenge yourself with difficult stretches and poses then your body adapts by improving muscle flexibility and joint mobility. If you train with weights you stress your muscles enough so that they supercompensate and grow stronger to better handle that stress the next time.

So then how are we telling our body to adapt with prolonged exposure to Cardio? Well it’s true that if you spend enough time during a single session with this type of exercise and get your heartrate to a particular place, your body will start to burn a higher percentage of calories from fat. Proponents of this type of workout may refer to this as the ‘fat-burning zone’. Good news, right? Well the trouble is that with repeated efforts of ‘burning’ fat in this way, your body is going to start to get better at storing fat. I’ll say it again: overexposure to ‘Cardio’ trains your body to store fat. You’re probably thinking in the short term (“how many calories am I burning right now?”), but your body thinks in the long term (“If we’re going to keep this up, I guess we should have more fuel for next time”) and adapts accordingly. Thinking that you can ‘burn’ through fat during cardio exercise is like thinking that you can shrink your muscles with weight training. In the long run, the opposite is true.

And as if that wasn’t enough, adaptation to cardio exercise has another negative effect. The more you do it, the more efficient you get at it. Now if you’re a competitive marathoner or perhaps in a survival scenario, efficient calorie expenditure is a good thing. But if you’re trying to lose weight, it’s a horrible thing. It means that while you may burn 500 calories that first workout, after a while you’re only burning 475, and after even more practice maybe you’re down to 450. You burn fewer calories while while simultaneously teaching your body to store more of them. And if this sounds familiar to the downregulation of RMR that we discussed earlier, gold star for you.

So one last time let’s circle back to our “Biggest Loser” contestants. The majority of exercise that I’m aware of on the show can largely be classified as ‘Cardio’. Lots of time spent running and on the treadmill. And no, I haven’t seen every episode, but I’ve seen enough Planet Fitness/Biggest Loser cross-branded elliptical machines that I feel fairly safe in my assumption. So if we apply what we know about cardio and its negative effects, it’s pretty easy to see why the weight was gained back so easily: because they spent so much time unintentionally training their bodies to more effectively store fat. If you don’t believe me, talk to anybody that’s spent serious time training for a marathon or other endurance sport, and ask what happens when the training tails off afterward. I’ll give you good odds that they say the pounds come back on pretty quickly.

Eat and Train for Muscle and Power

I suppose at this point it may be easy to see why the tone of the NY Times article was a bit despondent. Diet and exercise doesn’t work? Have we been lied to? Is weight loss impossible? Where do we go now? This is far from the first article that paints a grim picture as to the effectiveness of weight loss programs. The big problem with some of these pieces is that everybody only seems to consider one type of exercise... Usually measured in minutes spent sweating.

The alternative to aerobic exercise (what we think of as ‘cardio) is anaerobic exercise. Things like weight training, HIIT and sprinting. A good weight loss or body composition program needs to focus on training for and feeding muscle growth. I know, I know, the idea of adding muscle can be scary if your goal is to lose weight, but lean muscle mass is the answer to the big problem exemplified by our “Biggest Loser” contestants. Muscle tissue is more metabolically active and increases your RMR. And sprinting or intervals may not burn as many calories during your workout, but they burn far, far more after your workout. Following high-intensity workouts, metabolism stays elevated for hours or even days afterward (what’s known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption). After enough (smart) exposure to weight and/or interval training, you build a metabolism that burns calories even when you’re not actively trying to.


Noah is Co-Owner, Head Coach and General Manager of CrossFit Praxis in Washington, DC. Between years as a coach and competing in the CrossFit Mid-Atlantic Regional Competition every year since 2012, Noah is relentlessly enthusiastic about refining and improving workout programs for elite athletes, teams, and beginners alike.

Noah Gabriel-Landis

Noah is Co-Owner, Head Coach and General Manager of CrossFit Praxis in Washington, DC. Between years as a coach and competing in the CrossFit Mid-Atlantic Regional Competition every year since 2012, Noah is relentlessly enthusiastic about refining and improving workout programs for elite athletes, teams, and beginners alike.