What Happened to the Biggest Losers Won't Happen to You

Don't mistake reality TV for your own reality!

Posted May 04, 2016

Source: Photo: S.McQuillan

If you’re overweight, thinking about or trying to lose some weight, and distressed about the Biggest Loser study, you can stop worrying now.  To begin with, the results of research that looked at 14 men and women who lost drastic amounts of weight trying to win a weight-loss competition for a reality TV show have little or nothing to do with your own reality. Nothing about this study applies to the average person trying to get to or maintain a healthy weight in a normal way. Why? Because that was reality TV and you are living in your own, very separate reality. In fact, a single, very small study doesn’t necessarily say much about its own participants.

The Biggest Loser participants weighed between 239 and 417 pounds at the start of the competition, and lost anywhere between 73 and 183 pounds in less than 8 months. To do this, they drastically cut their calorie intake and exercised for many, many hours each day. Their metabolic rate—the rate at which their bodies burn calories—slowed down significantly by the end of the competition. That was expected, because we already know that metabolic rates slow down during weight loss. In simplified terms, when you eat less food or burn significantly more calories than usual, your body doesn’t know if you are dieting or starving. All your body knows is that there are fewer energy sources available. So it automatically slows down your metabolism to preserve the calories (energy) you need for normal body functions. This study found that, six years later, the competitors’ metabolic rates were even lower than at the end of the competition The more weight they lost during the competition, the lower their metabolic rate when measured six years later. For the researchers, this was new information.

As the competitors regained weight over the six years following the competition, they did not regain their original ability to burn calories. Their metabolism remained similar to what it was at the end of the competition, when they were at their lowest weight. Once they stopped doing everything they were doing to lose weight as quickly as possible, they started to regain, but without the capacity to offset the effects of eating a higher calorie diet and doing less exercise than during the competition. As a result, it will be very difficult for them to lose their regained weight.

What the researchers found in the Biggest Loser study may contribute something to the body of knowledge about the biodynamics of obesity and quick weight loss, and will certainly lay the groundwork for future studies. But the researchers themselves state that “the extreme and public nature” of the Biggest Loser competition makes it impossible for them to apply their findings to the average weight loss program which, if legit, does not encourage such drastic methods or quick weight loss. That’s pretty much all you need to know, and now you can get on with your day and your own personal (hopefully healthier) plan for getting to or maintaining a healthy weight. A plan that's grounded in your own reality!


Fothergill E, Guo J, Howard L, et al. Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after “The Biggest Loser” competition. Obesity. 2 May 2016. DOI: 10.1002/oby.21538.