Exposing Biggest Loser trainer's flawed health advice

By Lydia Jade Turner

Biggest Loser trainer Michelle Bridges claims weight loss ‘success’ is a case of mind over matter.

“[Being a contestant on] The Biggest Loser… is a bit like winning the lottery. You can either spend all the prizemoney and return to your original financial state, or you can invest it wisely and set yourself up for life,” she wrote in her Sunday Life column.

Despite research demonstrating ninety-five per cent of people who lose weight will regain it within two to five years[1], Bridges stuck to her guns.

“…Biggest Loser contestants return to reality with all the tools they need for the best long term outcome.”

Side-stepping the fact that many past contestants have regained the weight or are now weight cycling, Bridges insists weight regain is the fault of the individual.

Bridges can be confident it is the contestants who are to blame, because she knows The Biggest Loser approach works. She knows this – despite no studies to support this view – simply by assuming this is the case.

In an attempt to support her argument, she described a 2004 study [2] misattributing it to a 2008 study conducted by Professor Susan Byrne.

The 2004 study Bridges described looked at the impact of ‘dichotomous’ or ‘black-and-white’ thinking on weight loss.

The findings showed those who began their weight loss journey with unrealistic expectations were more likely to engage in rigid weight loss attempts, setting themselves up to fail. However those with less ‘dichotomous thinking’ were more likely to be content with a modest amount of weight loss and thus kept the weight off for longer.

Bridges concluded that “…long term outcome is likely to be affected by the mindset in which losing weight is approached…”

The problem with this conclusion is that the study did not even qualify as ‘long term’ research. What wasn’t revealed is that the participants were tracked for only one year. It does not make sense to extrapolate data at one year and assume this informs what is likely to happen at five years. That’s just bad science.

Interestingly a more recent study by the same author finding weight loss failure at three years concluded “…it is ethically questionable to claim that psychological treatments for obesity ‘work’ in the absence of data on their longer term effects” [3].

Bridges further reported that studies since the 1960s demonstrate that the few who are able to keep weight off long term, manage to keep only a modest amount off – approximately five to ten per cent of their starting weight.

If Bridges is aware of this research, why does she continue to promote significant and rapid weight loss on The Biggest Loser?

Why does she sell workout DVDs that promise to get you “tight toned and terrific” when most ‘obese’ people who successfully maintain weight loss will still be… ‘obese’?

Is she not aware of the overwhelming amount of literature demonstrating the harms of weight cycling- a common result of weight loss failure? [4-8]

Bridges signed off with a ‘tip’ informing that those who make sustainable nutrition and lifestyle changes successfully keep the weight off. She finished by telling readers not to diet.

There are undoubtedly benefits to making healthy nutrition and lifestyle choices, whatever one’s size. But Bridges’ claim that this will keep the weight off is simply not supported by research. Biological safeguards often underlie weight resistance.

And isn’t it hypocritical to tell readers not to diet when the entire Biggest Loser show is one extreme diet designed for public entertainment?

Bridges is regularly featured in the SMH health section. She has provided advice on topics ranging from childhood obesity to genetic research.

It seems many Australians are putting in the efforts to improve their health, but knowing who’s advice to trust is proving difficult.

Despite all this focus on weight, what is rarely reported is that several studies demonstrate weight has little impact on health except at statistical extremes[9-11]. In fact those categorized as ‘overweight’ often outlive those in the ‘ideal weight’ category[12].

Due to significant financial conflicts of interest and bias [13, 14], obesity research typically does not account for numerous variables not limited to history of weight cycling, diet pills, stress levels, nutrient intake, socioeconomic factors [15].

Emerging studies show weight cycling – a common side effect of attempting weight loss –may be responsible for some of the problems typically attributed to obesity[16].

Could the solutions prescribed be causing the very problems they are designed to prevent?

Rather than abusing our bodies attempting weight loss solutions that don’t work, we can choose to engage in a process of health. We can choose to engage in life-enhancing physical activity, and balance our nutritional needs with feelings of hunger and satiety.

We can choose to focus on fitness, regardless of whether it brings about weight change. A healthy lifestyle will bring about health improvements, whatever one’s size.

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[1] ALBERT STUNKARD, M.D.; MAVIS McLAREN-HUME, M.S. (1959). AMA Arch Intern Med, 103(1):79-85. Please note this statistic has been reinforced by numerous clinical studies since 1959 and was recognized at the Australian New Zealand Obesity Society conference 2009 and the International Obesity Summit 2010.
[2] Byrne, S.M., Cooper, Z., & Fairburn, C.G.F. (2004).  Psychological predictors of weight regain in obesity. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 42, 1341-1356.
[3] Byrne, S.M., et. Al., (2010). Testing a new cognitive behavioural treatment for obesity: A randomized controlled trial with three-year follow-up. Behav Res Ther, 48(8): 706–713.
[4] Wallner S.J., et. al., (2004). Body fat distribution of overweight females with a history of weight cycling. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord., Sep 28(9):1143-8.
[5] Colditz, G.A., Field, A.E., Manson, J.E., Taylor, C.B., Willett, W.C. (2004). Association of weight change, weight control practices, and weight cycling among women in the Nurses’ Health Study II. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord., Sep 28(9):1134-42.
[6] Rzehak, P., et.al., (2007). Weight change, weight cycling and mortality in the ERFORT Male Cohort Study. Eur J Epidemiol., 22(10):665-73.
[7] Amigo I., Fernández C. (2007). Effects of diets and their role in weight control. Psychol Health Med., May;12(3):321-7.
[8] Saarni, S.E., et.al., (2006). Weight cycling of athletes and subsequent weight gain in middle age. Int J Obes Nov;30(11):1639-44.
[9] Durazo-Arvizu, R., et al., (1998). Mortality and optimal body mass index in a sample of the US population. American Journal of Epidemiology, 147: p. 739-749.
[10] Flegal, K.M., et al., (2005). Excess deaths associated with underweight, overweight, and obesity. Journal of the American Medical Association, 293(15): p. 1861-7.
[11] Troiano, R., et al. (1996). The relationship between body weight and mortality: A quantitative analysis of combined information. Int J Obes, 20: p. 63-75.
[12] Andres, R., D.C. Muller, and J.D. Sorkin, (1993). Long-term effects of change in body weight on all-cause mortality.  A review. Annals of Internal Medicine, 119: p. 737-743.
[13] Aphramor L (2010). Validity of claims made in weight management research: a narrative review of dietetic articles. Nutrition Journal, 9:30 doi:10.1186/1475-2891-9-30. www.nutritionj.com/content/9/1/30#B36
[14] Bacon L (2008). Health at every size: The surprising truth about your weight. Benbella: USA.
[15] Campos, P., et al., (2005). The epidemiology of overweight and obesity: public health crisis or moral panic? International Journal of Epidemiology.
[16] McFarlin, B.K., & Strohacker, K. (2010). Influence of obesity, physical inactivity, and weight cycling on chronic inflammation. Frontiers in Bioscience E2, 98-104.

13 responses to “Exposing Biggest Loser trainer's flawed health advice

  1. Nice work at deconstructing a flimsy sensationalised story in of course, the media. Why they keep publishing this kind of erroneous, unscientific crap is clear – it sells. People have hung their faith onto the crap she and others like her peddle. So it makes what you do even more important.

  2. Thank you for the links and references that shoots down yet another piece of how-to-make bigots rich propaganda. Sounds like Michelle Bridges had a busy weekend in prep for the next season of You-can’t-be-loved-unless-you’re-slim Biggest Loser. She posted another article which I addressed here: http://pinterest.com/pin/206602701625498496/

  3. Great response, Kitt. I couldn’t agree more. Bridges claims to be “hurt” because you called her a ‘fattist,’ then in the same article uses evolutionary psychology (which itself is limited) to justify this discrimination!

  4. Thank you for your response 🙂 I almost had to block out from my mind the reference to evolutionary psychology. I’ve heard it used as a lame justification for canned hunting, misogyny, rape, violence – and now fattism. Those people forget another aspect of evolutionary behaviour and that is nurturing and protecting oneself and loved ones to preserve our species. I know I’m not alone in realising that the stress of fat shaming, bigotry and discrimination is more likely to kill me than body fat.

  5. Thank you…. I am big, I have been big most of my life, and I have friends that tell me it is my fault and I could do something about it if I could.
    I starved and got small, I ate and got big, I dieted and it did nothing.
    I liked TBL until it became disheartening to see how little help people were given after the show…. and the challenges which were about eating crap food to stay in the game… well… they were just crap!
    Good luck to everyone on their own journey… just don’t assume you know what it is and how it should be done

  6. Thanks for this article. As someone who struggles with an ED (EDNOS), I hate hearing things like “mind over matter”. For a start, my mind can’t quite be trusted at the moment, and secondly, it was thoughts like “just try harder and follow the rules” that helped me develop the ED in the first place. Obviously not the only thing, but constantly hearing I ‘have the tools’ to lose loads of weight (and therefore BE HAPPY, because they’re apparently linked) is not helpful.

    I wouldn’t listen to a thing Michelle Bridges said. She also thinks people who eat lollies or cake or fast food are “childish”. That may explain why she is so condescending to the Biggest Loser contestants. She is clearly disgusted by fat people and thinks they’re stupid. Lovely.

  7. I understand where you all are coming from as to the approach “The Biggest Loser” makes towards handling weight loss issues such as eating disorders and so on. I am becoming less of a fan of the show these years and am questioning the validity of the show and that others may be given more/less time in actuality to loose weight prior to the filming of the episode. What cannot be denied is the results. These individuals have lost the weight. The dietary logic is sound as long as it is practiced properly and continuously. I was considered obese and am very much in shape using same logic and nutrition guidelines preached on the show. Some differences, I ate what I wanted pure and simple prior to my weight loss. It was not a disorder as much as it was i don’t care, I want it. Then I learned what to and not to eat. I work out like no body’s business and I will not eat a condiment that is above 1 calorie. While watching the show, something clicked in me and I wanted to lose weight bad. I was discussed with myself I wanted it! You cannot want it for someone more than they want it for themselves. I think that the biggest loser is teaching them some tools. Do I think the show has flaws, absolutely. But they are given some tools to succeed aside from the show. Now, here is an important part. The fact that some of these individuals had reached some of the tremendous weight that they did, I think there is some therapy issues and sessions that need to be had. These people are on a secluded ranch that most would kill for to work out and get into shape. What happens when you go home and wife is happy that you lost weight, but she didn’t and you haven’t been around the kids like she has for 3 months. Stress is back. I thing that the contestants should have been given or should have sought counselling after the show. Just my opinion and from my experiences. I live it, I teach it. I know the fitness & nutrition side of it is sound, but I think the psychological part of the equation is lacking to say the least. The show has them “Address the fears” and “Address the issues,” but all they do is say what it is. It is different when they get back into the world and have to face the fact that you just put your business out in the street on national tv, now what? Counselling, Counselling, Counselling!!!

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