The Biggest Losers: Advertisers’ Gain is Whole Food Health Advocates’ Loss

As the figures for obesity and the health risks associated with it continue to rise, there is a need for a global dialogue on the risks of our unhealthy, unsustainable, and inequitable food system. Unfortunately, and contrary to what many viewers may think, this dialogue is not occurring on The Biggest Loser.

While over 1 billion people worldwide will go to bed hungry tonight, a growing segment of the population is suffering from a different consequence of our broken food system. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 1.6 billion adults are overweight, and at least 300 million of them are obese. This does not include figures tracking childhood obesity, which is also on the rise.

In addition to chronic health problems and rising medical costs, this trend has spurred the production of the popular television show The Biggest Loser. Each season, a cast of thousands vie for a spot on NBC’s weight-loss reality hit. You might think of it as Survivor with protein shakes and sweat bands. Contestants who lose the lowest percentage of weight each week are put in jeopardy and run the risk of being voted off by their fellow competitors. Instead of team challenges, contestants on The Biggest Loser tackle intense all day exercise programs and strict low-calorie diets. With two camera-aware and drama-hungry trainers screaming them on, these contestants spend upwards of six or seven hours a day on treadmills, spin bikes, and weight machines.

Not surprisingly, these rigorous and often bordering on barbaric diet and exercise regimes produce results. Fast. Although several participants have been hospitalized at one point or another along the way, the season finale is always a display of triple digit weight loss and heartwarming victory speeches. Despite the show’s proven success, health professionals have remained critical of the techniques the show is promoting to millions of viewers. They warn that there are risks to dropping so much weight so quickly.

What’s more disturbing are the not so subtle examples of product placement included throughout each episode. The show’s trainers, Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels, frequently endorse the benefits of eating fresh, local, and organic foods rather than the processed foods that currently dominate our global food system. At the same time, they are frequently seen promoting the highly processed and aspartame-filled products of the show’s sponsors on camera. Quaker Instant Oatmeal, Yoplait Fat-free Yogurt, and Wrigley’s Gum are just a few of the products the show has promoted as key to a healthy diet.

Biggest Loser Trainer Bob Harper features product integration at minute seven in this recent clip.

This tactic is not unique to The Biggest Loser. A 2005 study of product placement showed that the value of television product placements grew 47% to $1.88 billion between 1999 and 2004. Ironically, the very food system the trainers are supporting through product placement has likely contributed to the obesity epidemic they are battling. In addition to propagating the products and companies that have left so many sick with heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, the show’s producers and participants are wasting an opportunity to shine a light on the unhealthy products that are promoted as health food by the multi-billion dollar diet industry.

While the current state of television programming leaves little to be said for its transformative and educational benefits, billions of captive viewers and the pervasive influence of this medium suggests otherwise.  Rather than lament the consumer-driven television programs that currently dominate our TV screens, viewers should demand more robust programming that speaks to their interests rather than to advertisers’ bottom lines.

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