Weight Loss Shows: Educate or Entertain?
I have said before that I am a big fan of The Biggest Loser and other weight loss shows that bring attention to the obesity epidemic and try to inspire people to lose weight and reap the rewards of a healthy life. With more than one-third of Americans obese or overweight, I applaud public awareness efforts and the sharing of information, tools and resources to help people make positive changes. Inspiring people to live healthier lives is my passion. I am all for it.
Of course, I do caution people against trying to emulate the experience contestants have on these show. It’s a lot easier to lose 10 pounds in a week when your entire day is spent at a fitness camp, surrounded by doctors, nutritionists, trainers and TV cameras. It’s much harder at home where you have to drum up your own motivation to step out the door and go exercise. And, no one is likely to hand you a big cash prize if you lose weight. (Dream on, right?)
What I do support is the awareness and inspiration that national weight loss shows offer. Weight loss success stories show people they can change. The shows can be a wake-up call. Personal stories shed light on the real struggles inside the obesity epidemic—from lack of knowledge about calorie consumption to stressed out people and emotional overeating.
I have even heard that The Biggest Loser and other shows make people who are obese less fearful of heading to the gym because of lessening the stigma of an overweight person working out. National shows take obesity out of the shadows where people can honestly seek help. If one person begins to exercise because of these shows, or if life is extended or quality of life improves for just one person—the various shows are having a positive impact that I support.
However, with weight loss shows becoming more prevalent on multiple TV networks, I am seeing a few things that concern me. Shows trying to emulate The Biggest Loser are popping up— but they are more voyeuristic in nature and less helpful to viewers. As to be expected with reality TV, some are truly educational and others are purely shock value content with little value to the viewer. Now, we all know The Biggest Loser sneaks in those infomercials where contestants awkwardly try to act natural when they promote a brand of turkey, whole wheat cereal or yogurt. It’s a little hokey, but hey, there’s a real tip: Eat turkey, whole wheat cereal and low-fat yogurt. Plus, The Biggest Loser incorporates Trainer Tips into its show—useful bits of advice straight from the trainers. However, some of the other weight loss shows are starting to seem more like Jersey Shore—surprising and sometimes disturbing content with no teachable takeaways: low on substance, high on shock value. While I love inspiring stories of weight loss transformation, programs need to include practical tips of how people reached their goals, instead of following a formula of drama that appears to be void of any real tips.
When a show is about making someone cry by weighing them on a loading dock scale because they are too heavy for a regular scale, that’s not teaching anyone anything; it’s just selling shock value and shame for TV ratings. I am sure some might argue that dramatic weigh-ins are a wake-up call obese people need to have in order to achieve lasting weight loss. Maybe that’s true, but is it something we really need to witness on TV? Public humiliation as teacher? If people voluntarily want to weigh in on national TV, that’s fine, but let’s not treat them as if they are less than human.
I know I am picking on Extreme Makeover Weight Loss Edition, as it happens to be one of the shows I have caught a few episodes of, but I am concerned with other shows popping up that document the drama but not the solutions. The formula goes something like this: follow the life of one obese person; dramatic weight loss in the first few months; a significant setback of some type; and voila, dramatic weight loss again, tied in with a tearful makeover at the end. But with little footage of their actual exercise regimen or new dietary guidelines, what did we learn?
I support the inspirational stories that lead obese and overweight people to take the first steps to change, to begin an exercise back to health with that first step. I also applaud trainer Chris Powell’s obvious knowledge, authenticity and empathy he demonstrates on each show. What I don’t support is the lack of takeaways this show offers. We don’t actually learn how people change. More time is spent filming setbacks or on what doesn’t work—hitting the drive through for fast food again, overeating due to stress, than on filming nutritional strategies, workout routines or ideas people can use to implement change in their own lives.
My intent is not to bad mouth Extreme Makeover Weight Loss Edition—especially since I have only watched a few episodes. My purpose is to express my hope that reality shows focusing on weight loss won’t start losing the messages of inspiration and education by getting lost in the voyeurism of reality TV. Rather than pollute the airways with embarrassing or shocking content, let’s use the platform to educate and motivate when it comes to weight loss.
Inspiration alone might get people started, but if there’s a national forum to help reduce the obesity epidemic, shouldn’t we make sure we use every minute of it wisely?