washingtonpost.com
These Losers Never Quit

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"The Biggest Loser," the hit reality television show about weight loss, recently launched its fourth season on NBC by introducing 18 new -- and very obese -- contestants ready to shed pounds and perhaps win $250,000.

If you've never caught the show, it's worth a look even though there are moments -- the weigh-ins that sometimes seem to border on public humiliation -- that may make you cringe.

Like all reality shows, "The Biggest Loser" gives the impression of being unscripted, but that doesn't mean it's unplanned. This is prime-time entertainment. So there are open casting calls and video tests in more than a dozen cities for contestants, just as there would be for actors on any TV series. But "Biggest Loser" contestants agree to spend as much as four months under 24-hour scrutiny at the show's location near Los Angeles.

This season alone, nearly 300,000 people applied to snag a spot on the show, according to executive producer David Broome. (Casting calls are already underway for the fifth season, which begins in January.)

Unlike many other shows, "Loser" contestants must pass a rigorous physical exam -- not easy to do when you tip the scales at 200, 300 or even 400 pounds. "We've had some people who broke my heart, because we couldn't get them to pass the medical exam," Broome says. "It was most sad because they looked upon us as their last-ditch effort for them."

To keep the show moving, the producers also plan creative story lines for each season and edit cleverly to build suspense and drama.

Take that enormous scale featured on each episode. "It's just a prop," Broome says.

To be sure, contestants stand on it for weigh-ins, but the numbers flashed on the plasma screen behind them come from measurements done earlier that day. (Those weigh-ins are videotaped for the Federal Communications Commission, which monitors all broadcast contests to prevent fraud.) Contestants don't know how they've done until they get "weighed" again in front of the cameras.

Knowing the numbers ahead of time gives the producers an edge: "We do it because then we are able to script the drama about when people are weighed" the second time, Broome says, thus adding suspense to the show.

Get past these entertainment elements, however, and there are some inspiring stories and worthwhile lessons in "The Biggest Loser."

Last season, Erik Chopin, 37, a deli owner and family man with two young children from West Islip, N.Y., proved that you don't have to undergo weight-loss surgery to reverse morbid obesity. At 407 pounds when the show began, Chopin was weeks away from having lap-band surgery. He lost 124 pounds over four months at the show's ranch, then went home, where he shed another 90 pounds over the next four months. His total loss -- 214 pounds -- earned him the $250,000 prize on the show's finale. Along the way, Chopin reversed his Type 2 diabetes and sleep apnea and brought elevated blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides to healthy levels.

His secret? Like the rest of the contestants, nothing exotic. He simply learned how to limit calories (men on the show eat 1,700 to 2,000 daily; women, about 1,100 to 1,500) and move a lot more. Chopin also switched to "quality" food, eating more fruit, vegetables, whole grains and lean meat, fish or poultry. He and other contestants kept food records to share with their trainers and with physician Robert Huizenga, the show's medical consultant.

Another lesson: Skipping meals is not a good strategy. "Because of the competition, you can start really restricting calories," Chopin says. "You think, 'Wow, if I eat less maybe I'll have a better week.' But we found if we deprived ourselves too much that we didn't have as good results. It was better to eat smaller meals than not at all."

This proven, old-fashioned approach to weight loss is one the show's key messages. "We are trying to talk about lifestyle changes," Broome says. "We are trying to change people from the inside out."

Contestants also learn how to prepare their own food. "My family thought that we had a chef [at the ranch] who cooked meals for us with just the right amount of calories, protein and fat," Chopin says. "But that wasn't the case. We had a nice kitchen and nice equipment, but all the cooking was done by ourselves."

Then there were the workouts. Like other contestants, Kelly Minner, 31, a teacher from Bethlehem, Pa., who lost 79 pounds on the show, was surprised by their duration and intensity at the ranch. "We would work out like six hours a day," she says. "That was our job."

When the three finalists went home for several months before the finale, Minner worried that she would slip into her old, bad habits. "I learned that I have to take time for myself and schedule things," says Minner, who has now lost a total of 102 pounds.

She also focuses on habits, not just on the number on the bathroom scale. Before the finale, Minner weighed herself several times a day at home. "I would be obsessed, and if it fluctuated I would be devastated," she says. "But that was for the show. In real life, it is about being healthy."

Poppi Kramer, 35, a 5-foot-2 actress and comedian from New Jersey, weighed 232 pounds when her manager suggested that she audition for last season's show. "I was not even interested," says Kramer, who had previously shed 50 pounds on the Atkins diet, then regained that weight plus 70 pounds more. "The mortification! I didn't need it."

But then Kramer says she realized "that there are not a lot of roles for someone with a lot of rolls."

She went to the ranch but then, as part of a new plot twist last season, was immediately sent home to try to lose weight on her own. Huizenga and a registered dietitian monitored her progress, but Kramer was largely left to her own devices.

"Anybody can go to a fat camp, where they are secluded, and lose weight," says Kramer. "What I learned by coming home and doing it myself is how to problem-solve and really take care of myself."

She ate 1,100 calories a day -- about 20 percent of what she had been consuming before her time on the show -- and spent at least four hours a day working out. "Any time I had an appointment, I also set aside half an hour to walk to it, so I saved a lot of money on taxis, too," she says.

Her efforts paid off. Eight months after beginning the show, Kramer had lost 125 pounds -- more than half her weight -- and earned a spot on a "Biggest Loser" reunion show.

"It will be a year in December since I lost the weight," she says, "but it will be a big deal when it becomes five years."

The possibility of being invited back for more televised reunions helps keep Chopin motivated to maintain his weight.

"The maintenance thing is a lifetime commitment," Chopin says. "I'm glad that there is a little bit more accountability for me than the average person who loses weight. The main thing is that my health is back and I will be there for my 4-year-old and my 7-year-old and my wife. But if I start to pile on weight . . . well, there probably will be another reunion show." ¿

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company