Metabolic Effects of the Biggest Loser

Who knew that any evidence base existed for the metabolic effects of The Biggest Loser? A new study just published online in Obesity compares effects of participating in The Biggest Loser to bariatric surgery. In fact, this is the second publication of data from The Biggest Loser collected by researchers from the NIH, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, and UCLA.

Admittedly, it’s hard to separate our feelings about the spectacle of that somewhat notorious reality television show from the objective facts of the intensive behavioral intervention behind it. Participants are isolated together for 90 days in a competitive weight loss competition. Apart from the competition, the intervention consists of a self-selected dietary restriction along with supervised intensive exercise activities. After that initial 90-day competition phase, participants return home to complete a total of seven months on their own.

The researchers learned two things about the effects of The Biggest Loser. First, it appears that the intensive exercise component of The Biggest Loser regimen has its intended effect of preserving muscle mass. Participants preserved more of their lean body mass than gastric bypass patients who lost similar amounts of weight. Preserving lean body mass is thought to provide some protection from weight regain.

But surprisingly, Biggest Loser participants had more metabolic adaptation than the matched gastric bypass patients experienced. In other words, their bodies slowed their metabolism even more, creating more pressure to regain that lost weight. One might expect Biggest Loser participants to be more vulnerable to weight regain because of this.

The researchers found that the slowing of resting metabolic rates was directly related to circulating levels of leptin, the so-called satiety hormone, along with the degree of caloric restriction in these patients.

Perhaps we should take some comfort. From the spectacle and exploitation of The Biggest Loser, at least we’re getting a little insight to add to our understanding of obesity and its treatment. But the exploitation is hard to swallow.

Click here to read the new study in Obesity, and here to read an earlier publication on the subject from the same authors.

Muscles, illustration from Myotomia reformata © Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library / flickr

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7 Responses to “Metabolic Effects of the Biggest Loser”

  1. September 24, 2014 at 5:02 pm, Allen Browne said:

    The findings are very consistent with current data that show the response to starvation is slowing the metabolic rate. This is in contrast to data about the RYGB that shows no slowing of the metabolic rate and even some increase. Also with the RYGB hunger goes away whereas the lower leptin levels in the Biggest Loser Group probably leads to more hunger or at least less satiation. Some people overcome their physiology better than others for the duration of the show – these are the winners of the contest. But for consistent long term results in the majority of people we need treatments that mimic the RYGB – increased metabolism and less hunger. – the body protecting a new, healthier set point for the patient.

  2. September 25, 2014 at 8:18 am, Traci Lawrence said:

    As a Personal Trainer and Health Coach for 20 years I have had numerous concerns about the biggest loser program results, and how they can be maintained when the program participants return to their normal life. Thank you for making this research information known.

    • September 25, 2014 at 9:55 am, Ted said:

      Traci and Allen, thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  3. September 26, 2014 at 3:36 pm, Rose A. said:

    13 pairs of participants? Is this serious?

    • September 27, 2014 at 5:02 am, Ted said:

      It’s worth keeping the size of the study in mind, Rosa, before generalizing. Regardless, the insights are provocative.

  4. September 27, 2014 at 5:57 am, Rose A. said:

    Hallo Ted, provocative, indeed! 😉
    However, I have serious doubts.
    1) We know, that patients, having removed their gastric banding or other devices for whatever reason, gain weight so rapidly, that you can’t look as fast! Why should RMR not go down with RYGB?
    2) If muscle mass is decreased, were can a maintained or even an increased RMF come from? Is almost impossible, I suppose?

    • September 27, 2014 at 6:03 am, Ted said:

      Your questions are good. I would suppose that RMR does not go down as much after bariatric surgery because of changes in signalling between the gut and the hypothalamus. The hypothalamic set point is not changed, but signalling is changed. But again, our knowledge only skims the surface of what is going on, so generalizations are dangerous.