Enter the reboot, which the program plans to roll out for its 18th season in January: Instead of talking about “getting skinny,” host Bob Harper told People Magazine that the show will focus on “getting healthy.” Contestants will learn how to make nutritious meals and will participate in group therapy for help shifting their lifestyles, promised USA Network, where the next season will run.
“Skinny does not always equate to being healthy,” Harper said in an email. “This is about getting these contestants on the right course to living healthier lives — physically and mentally.”
The show’s revamp comes amid a societal shift in how people think and talk about weight management. Instead of focusing on the number on the scale, diet and exercise companies now speak about holistic wellness and self-care. The changes to “The Biggest Loser” reflect that change in ways that make the show less harmful than previous versions, experts say, but the program still presents an unrealistic picture of weight loss.
Participants on “The Biggest Loser” compete for a cash prize by losing the highest percentage of weight during each 30-week season. Trainers teach the contestants nutrition and guide them in sometimes-grueling exercise plans, and participants compete in challenges that can lead to rewards such as an advantage at the next weigh-in. Some past contestants have said the show encouraged them to make dangerous decisions, such as dehydrating and developing disordered eating patterns.
Harper said the 2020 season will focus on the reasons that each contestant got to their weight in the first place. Trainers will talk to participants about nutrition and work with them to create individualized meal plans. Each contestant will leave the show with a nutritionist, a Planet Fitness membership and access to a support group, Harper said.
“So much in weight loss has changed over the past few years, and we want to show Americans that being fit is about healing yourself from the inside out,” Harper said in an email. “Finding those root causes, getting that emotional support and, yes, hard physical work and smart eating are key, but there are other pieces of the puzzle.”
Sarah Adler, a psychologist at the Stanford Eating Disorder and Weight Control Clinic, said she was pleased to see the language used by “The Biggest Loser” catch up with the way experts have talked about weight control for years — by focusing on health, rather than body shape or size. She said the show, however, still aims to make contestants as thin as possible, which impedes them from accepting their bodies and making healthy weight-related decisions.
“I think the devil’s in the details,” Adler said. “If they are paying lip service to making these taxonomic changes or these language changes but still promoting idealized weight and shape, then we’re not really getting anywhere.”
The changes are a step in the right direction but barely scrape the surface of the steps the show would need to take to effectively help participants lose weight and keep it off, said Cynthia Thomson, a health promotion sciences professor at the University of Arizona. She praised the program’s plan to teach about factors that affect weight other than food, such as stress and sleep, but she said people’s environment, community and family dynamics also play a role.
Thomson said that regardless of other adjustments that the show has made for the upcoming season, its unchanged premise of encouraging contestants to lose weight as quickly as possible is still unhealthy. Weight loss that happens too rapidly often decreases people’s metabolic rates — how quickly their bodies use energy — and bone mass, she said.
“When you take people who really have quite significant metabolic dysfunction and body size and you do this rapid weight loss, I don’t care if you help them with sleep or you give them a class on stress or teach them how to breathe and relax,” Thomson said. “It’s just not going to be enough if you have put them through this 100-pound weight loss in a very short time period.”
The competitive nature of the show could serve as a motivator for some contestants, especially men and people who enjoy the publicity, Thomson said. She said studies have shown that competitive programs with rewards, such as workplace weight-loss programs, can incentivize people to change their behaviors.
Other mental and emotional effects of the show are less positive, experts have said. Researchers at Bowling Green State University in 2012 found that watching “The Biggest Loser” increased viewers’ dislike of overweight people and made them believe more strongly that weight is controllable. The researchers concluded that weight-loss shows contribute to weight stigma.
Harper said no one should be ashamed of struggling with their weight, especially because nearly 40 percent of Americans are medically obese, and that people should talk openly about weight management.
Although the host and trainers in the show’s upcoming season will talk about “getting healthy,” the program’s ideals and values remain the same, said Rachel Dubrofsky, a communication professor at the University of South Florida. She said the definition of “healthy,” as portrayed on the show, may end up being as restrictive as “getting skinny.”
“At the end of the day, the message is the same: through diet and exercise you can be transformed for the better, in specific ways ‘The Biggest Loser’ values,” Dubrofsky said in an email.
Most reality shows frequently update their formats to keep attracting audiences and advertisers as culture changes, Dubrofsky said. People used to promote being “strong” instead of being “skinny.” Now the emphasis is on “health,” Dubrofsky said, and other ways of thinking about diet and exercise will arise in the future.
Danielle Lindemann, a sociology professor at Lehigh University who studies reality television, said “The Biggest Loser” seems to have revised its structure in response to the longtime criticisms of the show. She said it was unclear how audiences would respond to the changes, given that most reality-television viewers want to watch high-drama programs.
“Is it going to be less voyeuristic for people, and subsequently, less tempting for people to watch,” Lindemann said, “if it becomes this wholesome show that’s more about a celebration of people’s health and less a fat-shaming show?”