Special Column: Are we really the 'Biggest Losers?'

By Tracey Carlton, fitness nutrition specialist with On-Point Nutrition


Note: This column appeared on the On-Point Nutrition blog on Feb. 6

It's really a shame that we concentrate so much on certain numbers in this country as a measure of success. From the number on the scale to the number in our bank accounts, it's a motivator that really is quite superficial.

Now, I am not so naive to not realize that numbers don't have that their place. They allow for tangible measurements - measurements we can see and wrap our heads around. We can "see" weight-loss progress when the numbers on the scale fall. We can "see" success when the numbers in our bank accounts rise. We can even "see" success when our children's numerical grades rise. Numbers, numbers, numbers…

Those numbers, though, quickly become rather unreliable, fickle motivators. A person eats a carb-laden salty meal and the scale rises from water retention. A life tragedy occurs, requiring a severe financial payout, and the numbers in the bank account are forced downward. A child has an "off" day and just didn't have the concentration to perform as well on a test. Do any of these numerical decreases really tell the whole story? No.

In come my thoughts on "The Biggest Loser" controversy. I am certainly impressed with the dedication that Rachel Frederickson had to maintain in order to become this season's winner by dropping from 260 pounds to 105 pounds. Look at those numbers! She lost 60 percent of her body weight during four and a half months on the show, according to the New York Daily News, placing her body mass index at 17.5, which is underweight by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards.

The controversy lies not only in her BMI (well, that number has enough inherent controversy anyway), rather more apparently in what cannot objectively be measured by numbers. To some, her appearance looks too "skinny" and gaunt. Comments have been made about being able to see her bones and that her face has sunken. She has been labeled as anorexic.

We do not know her health status, physical or mental. That is information privy to her doctors and herself. Sure, does her look raise concern in my mind, having experienced anorexia and bulimia, and still recovering from the effects of eating disorders to this day (because I believe it always sticks with you in the darkest places of your mind)? Admittedly, it does.

I have always, though, questioned the idea and the methods of "The Biggest Loser" contest. What really is the caloric intake of the contestants? What is the daily caloric expenditure? Can there hearts and joints really take some of the exercises imposed upon them so early in the competition? Do they teach them how to healthfully maintain a reasonable weight after undergoing such rigorous and strict nutrition and exercise schedules?

Do they train the mind must as hard as they train the bodies? Our habits, whether with food, drink, or exercise, are really more mental than physical. That's why I'm so impressed with Frederickson's mental fortitude that she obviously had to apply in order to drop so much weight so quickly. But with such an emphasis on the scale number, that fortitude can easily lead to an extreme, unbalanced way of thinking, and of relating to food and exercise. I hope this is not the case with Frederickson.

And what does "The Biggest Loser" teach us as a nation?

Since the contest is so rested on "the" number, it forces the contestants to focus on dropping as much weight as possible to win the hefty prize - not accounting for any muscle and other healthy lean mass lost along the way. Maybe Frederickson was just playing the game, knowing that if she lost weight, not worrying at the moment where that weight came from, she would walk away this season's winner. Bodybuilders and other athletes do this all the time - diet down for a particular moment in time. Is it necessarily healthy to fluctuate like that? Well, that depends on their methods and the time period in which they do it. Do some of these athletes have eating disorders? Of course, as do other people whom you encounter daily and may not even exhibit physical symptoms of disordered eating/exercising.

Instead of focusing on the weight, maybe "The Biggest Loser" can take body fat percentages into account, or increases in performance or changes in health markers and habits. I don't really have an answer, per se, to how "The Biggest Loser" can operate without so much of a reliance on that superficial number on the scale. I do know, though, to call Frederickson anorexic could very well be a misplaced, misinformed, and maybe unfair, label. Instead of criticizing her looks, we can use the moment as a lesson for our children and ourselves, in learning to move our attention away from such numbers as representations of success, and thus representations of our individual "self", and to focus more on learning and respecting a person's whole story - even our own.

Tracey Carlton is a Fitness Nutrition Specialist and Personal Trainer certified through the International Sports Sciences Association and American Fitness Institute, and is the owner of On-Point Nutrition, which offers both online and face-to-face nutrition and fitness coaching to meet your individual weight, performance, and health goals. She also is employed by the Greater West Point Family YMCA. Feel free to e-mail your questions or nutrition topics of interest to tcarlton@on-pointnutrition.com. You can find On-Point Nutrition on Facebook or at http://www.on-pointnutrition.com.