In this scene from the NBC show "The Biggest Loser," a contestant… (Photo credit: Bret Hartman/NBC )
"The Biggest Loser" is an extremely popular show that's spawned a mini weight-loss industry and inspired a slew of loyal followers. But does watching the show foster more positive or negative attitudes about overweight people?
That's what researchers set out to find in a study, published online recently in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Participants included 59 people, mostly white women whose average age was 20. About half were randomly assigned to view an episode of "The Biggest Loser," while the others, acting as a control group, watched an episode of "Meerkat Manor," chosen because it featured no people who could have influenced the viewers' feelings about weight.
Participants were given surveys one week before watching the shows as well as right afterward; the surveys focused on various attitudes and feelings about obesity, including likability of heavy people, whether weight is controllable and stereotypes about obese people. Questions were also geared to catch implicit weight biases.
After watching "The Biggest Loser" episode, viewers had more anti-fat attitudes than those in the control group, which included stronger beliefs that weight is controllable and more dislike of obese people. This, the authors noted, happened even though during the episode the contestants talked about their struggles with weight loss and showed them working to achieve their goals.
People who had a lower body mass index and were not trying to lose weight had substantially greater aversion to overweight people compared with similar types of participants in the control group.
Why would watching people work hard to lose weight produce greater anti-fat sentiments? "It is plausible," the authors wrote, "that seeing specific hardworking obese individuals lose weight successfully fuels negative attitudes toward obese people in general." Viewers may be thinking, for example, that if they can lose weight, why can't all obese people?
"Viewing this form of entertainment would appear to come at a cost to people who are obese by fueling weight stigma in general," they said. "Given the popularity of this show, these effects could have a considerable impact on the millions of its viewers."