December 16, 2010

This season's final four contestants, with winner Patrick on far left
This season’s final four contestants, with winner Patrick on far left

This week, 11 million Americans watched unemployed Mississippian Patrick walk away with the title of “The Biggest Loser” and $250,000 on the tenth season’s live finale.

Patrick’s win, like the $100,000 at-home prize for Mark, felt canned and dull.

The only spicy note in the unveiling of the victors was the tension between the two champs. Mark was one of two players this season, along with Jessie, who felt betrayed by Patrick’s cash-rules-everything-around-me vote to send them home. However, viewers were assured that they all love each other now. Phew!

Surprise! Both winning men were the final contestant weighed in their categories.

Surprise! Even though Patrick was one of three finalists, he was the only one who showed up with endorsement deal in hand and was allowed to promote it on air (Mind Stream Academy?).

Surprise! In last week’s episode, trainer Bob was in serious Patrick image-rehab mode, ensuring viewers forget our future champ’s shark-like game play. Foreshadowing!

Gushed Bob:

“I mean, I love Patrick. It makes sense that he has such good parents, because he is such a good man.”

Sweet, isn’t it?

Even without these clues, it is 100% unsurprising that a young (27) year old man with a lot of weight to lose (Patrick’s starting weight was 400) would win.

Just look at the overall weigh-in totals for the entire season. They weren’t provided by the show, but I have a calculator.

The average male contestant this season started at 393.3 pounds and lost 169.8 pounds over the season. That’s an average 43.3% weight loss. The average female started at 287.7 pounds and lost 82.6 pounds, 29.9% of her total weight.

The Biggest Loser won’t tell you this, but Weight Watchers and plenty of other sources will: men lose weight faster than women because of their body composition, and activity level. They are estimated to have a 5 – 10% inherent metabolic advantage.

Whatever a metabolic advantage is. When it comes to understanding the science of Biggest Loser weight loss, it’s anyone’s guess.

Last season’s winner, Mike, once lost 34 pounds in a week.

In terms of the way actual weight loss is scientifically understood, this is something of an impossibility – like bumblebees flying. (Although, actually, now scientists think they have that one figured out.)

To lose fat, a 34 pound loss requires a “calorie deficit” of 119,000 calories. To lose it in a week, Mike would need to not eat / burn an impossible 17,000 calories per day.

The show says it’s mostly done through exercise. Even taking into account his weight of 526 pounds, this chart says that Michael would need to run 12-minute miles for 8.7 hours/day. And consume no calories all week.

34 pound loss in a week doesn’t add up. Unless the Biggest Loser promotes severe dehydration to post big numbers, as Season 3’s Kai alleges on her blog. (This is also common practice among jockeys who are forced by cruel and arcane rules to “make weight” for races confirming their extreme low body weights.)

On the one hand, everyone is different. Our bodies are beautiful, complex, holy machines. And all we, and our health care providers, can do is describe what they are likely to do; rarely exactly what they will do.

(What bodies actually do during weight loss, as anyone who has ever dieted can attest, is baffling, exciting, frustrating, and flies in the face of the basic “rules.” )

On the other hand, I’ve come to believe that personal variation aside, viewers should know to watch the Biggest Loser cautiously for any real information about weight loss.

I’ve spent the last 5 weeks blogging about The Biggest Loser for the Center for Health, Media and Policy.

This health-related show is one of the most popular in the U.S. It represents a vast network of weight-loss and fitness merchandise, estimated at 100 million dollars a year of revenue.

But as we’ve covered these past few weeks, there’s a lot that’s missing.

Lack of specific information is a chronic problem on virtually every episode, from when/where and what the dieters eat, to the medical reasons that slower weight loss of no more than two pounds a week is widely considered much healthier.

Our posts have also addressed the growing evidence that while exercise provides huge health benefits, it simply can’t deliver the weight loss results previously thought. For even more on that, check this out.

I’ve written about why it’s not a great idea to run a marathon as an overweight novice with 6 weeks of prep, as contestants did last week. I explored how access to quality food is an issue of class.

Some commenters have taken exception to my negativity about the show. They’ve pointed out that I may be “missing for the forest for the trees.” I respect that perspective.

It’s true that Biggest Loser contestants lose vast weight without surgery or diet pills. Their health is certainly improved through the process. Perhaps my posts have been short-sighted, and overly critical.

Watching the finale, during the Daughtry-soaked opening montage, trainer Bob turns to a momentarily defeated Brendan, a special ed teacher from Boston (starting weight: 362; final weight: 245) and says to him, “I want you to forgive yourself.”

It’s a nice message, and the contestants do seem happier at the end; prouder of themselves. And perhaps through their “journeys” on the show, they are able to make some emotional changes for the better.

Of course, there’s a blindingly obvious reason that the contestants are so much happier at the end of the Biggest Loser. They’re skinnier, and they’re excited about it.

Watching the finale, though, I couldn’t help but notice that there’s something else, too. Here’s a selection of quotes from the finale:

From Bob: “They come in, and they’re broken, and they’re lost.”

From Ada, at starting weight 258: “I know for a fact that if I was thinner, I would be closer to my family and they’ll be proud of me.” (This clip was played twice during the finale.)

Ada at 159 pounds: “They’re so supportive now.”

Lisa, on losing 97 pounds to be a role model for her tween daughter: “I think that I am the best person for her to look up to now instead of the worst.”

Aaron, a man who started at 468 pounds and is the light of his son London’s eyes: “I just think about all the people who had faith in me, and how I let them down.”

Frado, a successful trader and the the backbone of his large Staten Island Italian-American family: “I’m not a burden any more.”

Next season’s contestant, police captain, husband, and father Dan Evans, “I am motivated by my son, Adam, who died… I am doing this today because I want to honor the memory of my son, because I have let him down by gaining this weight.”

Wait a minute.