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Losing big -- fast

Pounds melt away on the reality show `The Biggest Loser.' But is quicker better?

October 30, 2006|Janet Cromley | Times Staff Writer

ON NBC's whip-'em-into-shape weight-loss show, "The Biggest Loser," the contestants spill an ocean of tears. Tears of frustration and tears of joy. Lips quiver. Chests heave. Noses run as tears well up then flow down dirt-streaked cheeks. And that's just the men.

But the physical and emotional shellacking that the morbidly obese contestants undergo while dieting and exercising their way to dazzling new figures is only part of the show's can't-look-away formula. The reality series offers the tantalizing suggestion that excess pounds can be dropped quickly, without surgery, and that they can be kept off. That's right. Poof. As celebrities such as Kirstie Alley and Janet Jackson conduct well-publicized battles to slim down -- and stay slimmed down -- the notion that real, permanent success is possible for everyone has made the weekly show a certifiable franchise.

The jury is still out among weight-loss experts. Long-term success, they say, is extraordinarily difficult.

Nonetheless, the show has spawned a bestselling weight-loss book, cookbook, DVD and an online community of folks who are paying $20 a month for "The Biggest Loser" diet information and support. It has also fueled a blood lust for competitive weight loss at schools, hospitals, fitness centers and even military bases, where creative dieters are using the principles of the show, albeit without the public flogging, to form their own contests.

Although most obesity doctors recommend losing weight slowly with moderate calorie reduction and moderate exercise, the physician and wildly telegenic trainers involved with the show are going about it differently. They think that their extreme, exercise-based diet plan may prove superior to slow-but-steady garden-variety diets at keeping weight off. "Most of these people had never been told that they could go out and get aggressive with exercise," says the show's physician Dr. Robert Huizenga, a Beverly Hills internist and sports physician.

And aggressive they are. Four to six hours a day of cardio and resistance training. For anyone, that's intense; for the contestants, it's a killer.

The goal is to get them close to a normal weight in a short period of time, while preserving as much muscle as possible. Because muscle burns more calories than fat, Huizenga thinks the contestants will burn more calories at their new goal weight than they would have following a traditional diet -- and thus be better positioned to keep the weight off.

Huizenga is so convinced of his theory that he has been tracking data on the weight, fat, lean tissue and other body composition changes in each contestant, starting in the first season, in an effort to prove it.

"This is an ongoing experiment essentially, and the results will have ramifications for the obesity problem in this country," he says.

His preliminary data are intriguing.

Halfway into the show's third full season, first-year contestants are nearing the two-year mark. Those contestants lost an average of 25% of their body weight over 22 weeks -- a whopping percentage by any standard. At one year and 22 weeks, the contestants had retained an average weight loss of 22.6%.

Huizenga is currently crunching the group's results for year two.

In the general population, says Dr. Holly Wyatt, medical director of the obesity clinic at the University of Colorado and researcher at the National Weight Control Registry, research suggests that of those losing 10% of their body weight -- still considered a significant amount -- only about 20% will retain the weight loss in the first year. And, she points out, the numbers just get worse after that first year.

Pointing to the intractability of the problem, even several former contestants contacted for this story, presumably on their best behavior, have reported a slight regain -- or more -- of the weight they lost.

On paper, Huizenga's premise has merit, says James Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado. "It absolutely, theoretically, could give them an advantage in keeping weight off," he says. Massive amounts of exercise should enable the contestants to retain a little more muscle than traditional diets, and it could -- with emphasis on the could -- help them keep the weight off, he says.

"We don't have any studies in real life where that has happened," he says, "but we don't have any studies that have really used the intensity of the exercise that they're using on the show."

In the end, though, obesity experts say the biggest factor in keeping weight off may boil down to something much simpler: whether the contestants continue to exercise.

At the ranch

These are the waning days of shooting on the lavish Hummingbird Nest ranch in Simi Valley.

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