PopEater's Guide to Weight Loss on Television
By Jo Piazza Posted Jan 22nd 2011 03:00PM
Weight loss porn has become a special form of voyeuristic television. Each of the shows approaches losing weight in a different way, and at some point each has been criticized for what seem to be extreme and unsafe tactics to lose weight in a way that is visible in a short period of time so the at-home audience can viscerally experience the visual effects of the loss.
'The Biggest Loser' is the granddaddy of all these shows and has become a multimillion-dollar franchise unto itself, selling DVDs, weight loss books, diet foods and various other devices to help overweight fans of the show feel like they are participating in the series. The show started in 2004 with contestants competing to lose the greatest percentage of their body fat for a cash prize.
The extreme weight loss portrayed on the show has long had nutrition experts concerned about the health and safety of the participants.
"'Biggest Loser' set the weight loss reality show stage, and for that [it] will take the initial knocks that the trainers abuse contestants or that it's not real life. It isn't real life, it's reality television, but I think it inspires many people and potentially gives participants a jump start. We've seen mixed results with weight maintenance, but people are better off having been on show," says registered dietician Lauren Slayton of Foodtrainers.
Then, in January 2005, VH1 aired the first episode of 'Celebrity Fit Club,' a reality television series that followed eight overweight celebrities trying to shed pounds.
The original cast was even lower on the rungs of the fame ladder than the types of people chosen for weight loss endorsements. The first season featured comedian Ralphie May, actor Joseph Gannascoli, actress Kim Coles, Wendy Kaufman -- the overweight woman who once appeared in Snapple commercials, actor Daniel Baldwin, rapper Biz Markie and Divorce Court Judge Mablean Ephriam.
In eight weeks, the original group lost an average of 25 lbs. Contestants are paid up to $100,000 to participate -- that is the amount that Britney Spears' ex-husband Kevin Federline reportedly negotiated for himself for season seven. Federline lost 30 lbs, cashing in at over $3,000 per pound.
But the real benefit of gaining and losing weight in the public eye isn't the money; it is the increased exposure and boost in popularity for a group of has-beens.
MTV's 'I Used to Be Fat' emerged on the scene late last year from the same producers as 'The Biggest Loser' and follows teens during the summer after high school as they work to lose weight and transform themselves before entering college. The fact that the show's contestants are so young has some nutrition experts concerned.
"The age group worries me. I feel with 'Biggest Loser' that the contestants have been around the weight loss block and know this is extreme. I feel high school is too early for crash diets and plastic surgery," Slayton tells PopEater.
'Heavy,' a new kind of weight loss beast, debuted on A&E this month. Instead of pitting people against each other in a competition to lose weight and/or make money, they pair overweight people together to encourage one another. The show focuses less on the evils of food and more on the psychological aspects behind weight loss and gain. The show gives its subjects the tools for weight loss and then sends them back to their regular lives, where they are followed by cameras for an extended period of time.
Instead of offering a big prize or trumpeting the virtue of a one-time drop of pounds, 'Heavy' looks to change the person's overall mindset about fat, something leading registered dietitian Elisa Zied says is healthier for the long term.
"I think for most people and for the contestants, the extremes can lead to or contribute to health problems not to mention emotional ups and downs and set you up for failure long term. If you don't completely change your day-to-day life and the behaviors and circumstances that led to your current weight battles, you can't expect to maintain the improved, albeit extreme, behaviors you engaged in while participating on a show designed primarily for entertainment value ," Zied, the author of 'Nutrition at Your Fingertips,' told PopEater.
'Heavy' is by far the most encouraging and least dangerous on the roster of weight loss shows. It is still a voyeuristic journey into what is one of the most difficult challenges of a person's life, but it doesn't reward or encourage bad behavior with monetary carrots the way some of the other programs do. Because of that, 'Heavy' can seem less dramatic and compelling. It remains to be seen if an audience will tune in each week to watch a progressive and healthy weight loss without all the excitement and drama of explicit winning and losing.
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