The Biggest Loser has been a popular show for years, but it faced some serious backlash last year after The New York Times profiled an explosive study that revealed the contestants’ weight loss is often unsustainable and can actually harm their metabolisms. Now, The Biggest Loser creator J.D. Roth is working on a new show, The Big Fat Truth, in an attempt to find out why so many of his former stars regain the weight—and to help six of them who will appear on the show lose it again. (Roth will also try to help others lose weight as well.)
In a clip for the show obtained by People, Roth acknowledges the criticism around The Biggest Loser. “The New York Times published an article telling everyone that, ‘You can’t get away from a basic biological reality…as long as you are below your initial weight, your body is going to try to get you back.’ Could this really be true? How do you get lucky enough to get a lottery ticket to be on The Biggest Loser, lose all the weight, end up on the cover of People magazine, and then gain it all back?” he says. “So is it your metabolism? Or is it your choices?”
In reality, the reasons why most Biggest Losercontestants gained the weight back are complex.
The article Roth references cited a study published in the journal Obesity in 2016, in which researchers tracked contestants who participated in the show’s eighth season, which aired in 2009. Scientists found that within six years, 13 of the 14 contestants studied regained all the weight they’d lost—and four are heavier than they were before the show started. Researchers determined that, among other reasons, their metabolisms slowed after the show and stayed that way.
Contestants also said they felt hungry all of the time, which scientists found was because they had lower levels of leptin, a hormone that helps control hunger. Contestants had very low leptin levels at the end of the show, and as they regained weight after the show, their leptin levels went up—but they stopped at about half of what they were before—leading to constant feelings of hunger.
While Roth doesn’t reveal how he helps people lose weight on his new show, he implies that it’s a similar method to how they lost it on The Biggest Loser. Fatima Cody Stanford, M.D., M.P.H., M.P.A., instructor of medicine and pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and obesity medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells SELF that the show’s methods revolve around “extreme behavioral changes that are not sustainable over the long term,” including exercise that is well beyond what most normal people can commit to. “It’s almost taking them outside reality,” Stanford says.
But Roth says that his weight-loss methods work, noting that within 10 days of working with former contestants for this new show, they saw “considerable weight loss,” as well as significant decreases in insulin levels and bad cholesterol levels. “This series is proof that the mind is the gateway to transforming the body,” he says. Roth also says in a press clip for the show that he gives people the “tools to transform their lives…but it’s up to them to follow through.”
Roth makes it seem as though weight loss is simply a mind-over-matter issue, but the physical component is very real.
Weight loss is incredibly complicated—that can’t be overstated. As this entire debate shows, if you’d like to lose weight, it’s not just about what you eat and how you exercise. There are many factors in play, like sleep and stress, and even some that fall outside of people’s control, like your hormonal fluctuations, effects of medications you’re taking, and any health conditions you may have.
Beyond all of that, the brain has a set point for weight that it likes to maintain—and it fights hard to keep someone at that weight, Stanford says. “When we take the body outside that realm, the brain does whatever it can to get back to that set point where it feels comfortable,” she explains. “It’s very similar to how it defends your body temperature when you have a fever.” This process can involve a slowed metabolism.
Bartolome Burguera, M.D., Ph.D., director of Obesity Programs at Cleveland Clinic and executive medical director of the National Diabetes & Obesity Research Institute (NDORI), tells SELF that the rate at which people lose weight also factors into this dynamic. When you lose weight quickly, your brain doesn’t have time to catch up and still wants you to try to maintain your old weight, he explains. “Unless you lose weight slowly, your brain is going to want you to go back,” he says. “The only way to be successful is by changing your lifestyle in a way that you lose weight slowly and it doesn’t set off too many alarms in your brain.”
That’s part of the reason why, if weight loss is a goal of yours, experts recommend making tiny tweaks to your lifestyle for sustainable changes, rather than overwhelming yourself by trying to lose a lot of weight ASAP. Being overly restrictive in an effort to lose weight will likely lead to bingeing at some point, which is mentally and physically taxing enough on its own. But it can also get you into a cycle of yo-yo dieting, or repeatedly gaining and losing a lot of weight. Over time, yo-yo dieting can boost your risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and other health issues.
Avoiding those kinds of drastic changes is safer physically, but it’s also just a kinder way to treat your body and mind instead of putting yourself through absolute misery.
With that said, the mental aspect of losing weight can’t be ignored.
If you’re trying to lose weight, much of that progress will come down to building healthier habits. Let’s be real: Breaking old habits and building new ones is hard. For example, people often turn to emotional eating and alcohol when stressed, Peter LePort, M.D., medical director of MemorialCare Center for Obesity at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center, tells SELF.
Making long-lasting changes often comes down to hammering out specific goals that will help you keep working toward progress. That’s partly why The Biggest Loser is so successful at helping people lose the weight at first, LePort says. There’s a cash prize for whoever loses the highest percentage of weight, which can be motivational. But when the contestants are no longer motivated to lose weight for money, they can regain it if they don’t have another goal, LePort says.
Saleh Aldasouqi , M.D., Chief of the Division of Endocrinology at Michigan State University, agrees that mindset is “very important” in the weight loss process. He cites an example of a patient with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease who repeatedly struggled to lose weight but failed until she read about fatty liver disease and its potential impact. “That was the click,” he tells SELF. “Doctors should always look for what they think clicks and is important for the patient.”And if you don’t have a doctor or registered dietitian guiding you, it’s about figuring out your own intrinsic motivation that won’t just fade away when things get hard, then making changes from there. (If you’ve ever struggled with an eating disorder, be sure to consult your doctor before changing your eating or exercise habits.)
Weight loss isn’t a one size fits all approach, Stanford says—some people do well with modifications in diet and exercise, while others may need medications or weight loss surgery. And, while a change in mindset is necessary and helpful, losing weight and keeping it off ultimately involve more than that.
The bottom line: Weight loss is usually about both your body and your mind.
Deciding to lose weight is an incredibly personal process. What works for someone else might not work for you, and vice versa. But if it happens to be a goal of yours, there are healthy ways to do it—and that’s really what’s most important. LePort says some people can change their exercise and diet habits and keep weight off with various approaches, but it’s most likely to happen if you go about it with methods that are safe, realistic, and actually doable for you. “It’s so important to lose weight in a way that’s healthy and you can sustain that effort long-term,” Burguera says.
If you’ve lost a significant amount of weight and are struggling to keep it off, Stanford recommends seeking the help of a doctor who specializes in weight management. They can help you decide the best course of action from there.