A study that followed up on 14 contestants from the weight loss reality show “The Biggest Loser” confirms what some previous participants have been saying for years: The massive weight loss depicted on the show can be almost impossible to maintain perfectly, and in fact it is frighteningly easy to re-gain all the weight they lost — and then some.
That’s not surprising on its own. After all, contestants dedicate themselves wholly to weight loss for about seven months in an artificial environment that is impossible to maintain after the show ends. What’s more, the public scrutiny, as well as the financial incentives, make their success difficult to translate into post-show maintenance. But the reason for weight re-gain goes deeper than willpower, according to Kevin D. Hall, lead author of the study and a scientist at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.
Hall found that former “Biggest Loser” participants had slower metabolisms than people of comparable age and body composition who never lost an extreme amount of weight. These slowed metabolisms persisted even years after appearing in the competition, according to the study, published Monday in the journal Obesity.
The researchers also found a key factor related to the “satiety hormone” leptin, which lets your body know when you’ve eaten enough. In line with past research that shows people who lose weight suffer a decline in leptin, the leptin levels of “Biggest Loser” contestants plummeted after the show and never fully returned to their pre-weight loss numbers.
These two factors, the researchers argue, create a perfect storm for weight re-gain because the body is slow to burn calories at the same time that hormone levels make a person feel like they need to keep eating. Indeed, the findings as they werefirst reported in the New York Times were accompanied by distressing testimony from former contestants who spoke of an overwhelming hunger and food cravings they couldn’t control.
“What people don’t understand is that a treat is like a drug,” Erinn Egbert, a season eight contestant, told the New York Times. “Two treats can turn into a binge over a three-day period. That is what I struggle with.”