Biggest Loser Diet Overview

Scorecard

Overall
Weight Loss Short-term
Weight Loss Long-term
Easy to Follow
Nutrition
Safety
For Diabetes
For Heart Health

Scores are based on experts' reviews

Pros & Cons

  • Solid nutrition
  • No foods off limits
  • Lots of grunt work
  • Somewhat pricey

Do's & Don'ts

Do: Keep a food journal See more Do's & Don'ts

Overview

Type:

Balanced.

Resembles these U.S. News-rated diets:

DASH Diet, Mayo Clinic Diet, Mediterranean Diet, Volumetrics, Glycemic-Index Diet

The aim:

Weight loss, disease prevention or reversal.

The claim:

Six weeks of healthy food and regular exercise not only is a great start to a weight-loss journey—it can also help prevent or reverse diabetes; cut the risk for cancer, dementia, and Alzheimer’s; improve your heart health; and boost your immune system.

The theory:

We eat too many of the wrong foods and not enough of the right ones, and we sit around too much. The not-so-surprising solution: eat regular meals that emphasize filling calories from fruits, vegetables, lean protein sources, and whole grains; practice portion control; use a food journal; and get up off the sofa.

How does the Biggest Loser Diet work?

First you have to choose a Biggest Loser book to follow. They’re all based on the same principles. What’s your appetite for reading? There’s the short-and-sweet 2005 edition, the more bulky 30-Day Jump Start from 2009, and, midway between the two, 2010’s 6 Weeks to a Healthier You. All are heavy on success stories from past contestants of the Biggest Loser reality TV show, tips for developing your menu based on a special food pyramid, and suggestions for sweating out some calories. Expand this section for more on the most recent version.

6 Weeks to a Healthier You is a crash course in nutrition. You’ll learn about foods with “quality calories” (you can guess which ones they’d be) and acquaint yourself with the Biggest Loser diet pyramid. It suggests four servings a day of fruits and vegetables, three of protein foods, two of whole grains, and no more than 200 calories of “extras” like desserts. That should make for a menu where 45 percent of your day’s calories come from carbs, 30 percent from protein, and 25 percent from fats. You’ll also take a hard look at your risk factors for developing diseases, calculate your calorie allowance, learn about portion control and when to eat, and see why keeping a food journal is important.

The rest of the book is split into thematic chapters—from preventing or reversing diabetes to lowering high blood pressure—and each takes you through a week of meal plans and recommendations for different types of exercise.

Will you lose weight?

It’s likely you will, given the plan’s two foolproof dieting tactics—calorie restriction and exercise. You just have to make sure you stick with it. Expand this section for research on the diet.

Some research has evaluated obese or morbidly obese contestants who have appeared on the Biggest Loser show. Interpret cautiously: The sample sizes are small, contestants may have had more—or much more—weight to lose than you do, and many had motivation-boosting TV cameras, prize incentives, and expert advisers surrounding them throughout the process.

  • In one small study, published in the American Journal of Medicine in 2011, researchers reported that 14 Biggest Loser contestants lost an average of 133 pounds (39 percent of their initial weight) after seven months of intense exercise and moderate calorie restriction following a plan where 30 percent of calories came from protein, 25 from fats, and 45 from carbs.
  • An unpublished study split 62 adults into three groups. The first group consisted of 14 Biggest Loser contestants who exercised four hours a day, six days a week and were encouraged to eat a diet largely of protein sources, fruits, and vegetables while avoiding saturated fat, processed grains, and added sugar. The second group—36 “home contestants”—attended a three-day symposium on diet and exercise and were instructed to exercise twice a day for 60 to 90 minutes each session. The third group, the controls, were sent home without any instructions.

    At eight months, those in the Biggest Loser group typically lost from 31 to 39 percent of their initial weight; for those in the home group, the typical range was from 22 to 28 percent. By comparison, the control-group individuals typically added from 2 to 5 percent of their starting weight. At 20 months, those in the first two groups typically had backslid somewhat, but were still 19 to 31 percent below their starting weight.
  • Two additional sets of data on Biggest Loser contestants, published in 2007 in the Journal of Clinical Densitometry and the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, reported similar amounts of weight loss. One reported that on average, 25 women had dropped 25 percent of their initial body weight and 22 men lost 32 percent of their weight after 8 months. Another set of data showed nearly identical figures for 27 women and 22 men after 8 months.

Does it have cardiovascular benefits?

Almost certainly. Some data show that obese and morbidly obese Biggest Loser contestants lowered their “bad” LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, and triglycerides, a fatty substance that in excess has been linked to heart disease, and increased their “good” HDL cholesterol.

While your experience on the diet won’t exactly mirror that of the contestants—and if you have less weight to lose, your results may be less dramatic—the Biggest Loser approach reflects the current consensus of the medical community about what makes a heart-healthy plan. It’s heavy on fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains while light on saturated fat and added sugar. And exercise is an integral part of the program, not an add-on.

Can it prevent or control diabetes?

The approach is generally viewed as an ideal eating pattern for both.

Prevention: Being overweight is one of the biggest risk factors for type 2 diabetes. If this diet helps you lose weight and keep it off, you’ll almost certainly tilt the diabetes odds in your favor. Biggest Loser data show some contestants no longer had indications of metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors that together can increase your risk for type 2 diabetes (and heart disease and stroke).

Control: In the American Journal of Medicine study, researchers reported participants reduced their levels of A1C—a measure of blood sugar—after seven months. And while the diet’s guidelines mirror those encouraged by the American Diabetes Association, you can also tweak your menu and exercise plan as needed, per your doctor’s advice.

Are there health risks?

Not likely.

How well does it conform to accepted dietary guidelines?

Fat. At 25 percent of your day’s calories, it’s at the low end of the government’s recommendation that between 20 and 35 percent come from fat. It’s also very low in saturated fat at 5 percent of daily calories; the government’s cap is 10 percent.

Protein. Within the recommendation at 30 percent of daily calories.

Carbohydrates. At a middle-of-the-road 50 percent of daily calories, it’s within the acceptable recommended range.

Salt. The majority of Americans eat too much salt. The recommended daily maximum is 2,300 milligrams, but if you’re 51 or older, African-American, or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, that limit is 1,500 mg. This diet clocked in at 2,900 mg., slightly above the targeted top number.

Other key nutrients. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines call these “nutrients of concern” because many Americans get too little of one or more of them:

  • Fiber. Getting the recommended daily amount of 22 to 34 grams for adults helps you feel full and promotes good digestion. At 31 grams a day on this diet, you’ll meet or come close to your fiber goal.
  • Potassium. A sufficient amount of this important nutrient, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, counters salt’s ability to raise blood pressure, decreases bone loss, and reduces the risk of developing kidney stones. It’s not that easy to get the recommended daily 4,700 mg. from food. (Bananas are high in potassium, yet you’d have to eat 11 a day to get enough.) The majority of Americans take in far too little. The sample menu provided about 3,500 mg. While a little short of the goal, it’s likely more than many Americans get.
  • Calcium. It’s essential not only to build and maintain bones but to make blood vessels and muscles function properly. Many Americans don’t get enough. Women and anyone older than 50 should try especially hard to meet the government’s recommendation of 1,000 to 1,300 mg. a day. You’ll be in the ballpark on this diet.
  • Vitamin B-12. Adults should shoot for a daily 2.4 micrograms of this nutrient, which is critical for proper cell metabolism. The sample menu provided more than double the recommendation.
  • Vitamin D. Adults who don’t get enough sunlight need to meet the government’s recommended 15 micrograms a day with food or a supplement to lower the risk of bone fractures. A sample menu was just short of the goal, but low-fat dairy and fortified cereals will help you meet the requirement.

Supplements recommended? No, but a Biggest Loser representative says dieters who worry about falling short—perhaps they don’t eat much fish, or dislike dairy and other calcium sources, for instance—might consider supplementing with a multivitamin, calcium, vitamin D, or omega-3 from fish oil.

How easy is it to follow?

Because the Biggest Loser diet doesn’t ban entire food groups, you shouldn’t have trouble complying long-term.

Convenience:

Recipes, convenience foods, and online resources abound. Eating out and drinking alcohol are both OK—be cautious and shrewd and you’ll be fine.

Recipes. You’ve got at least a few cookbooks to choose from, including one for family dinners and another just for your sweet tooth. For those who don’t think healthy meals are flavorful, there’s also Biggest Loser dietitian Cheryl Forberg’s Flavor First cookbook. The guidebooks all offer a smattering of recipes, too. You’ll find more free Biggest Loser recipes online.

Eating out. Sure, but make good choices. Figure out what you want before you head out, and don’t let the tempting smells at the restaurant change your mind. Avoid sautéed or pan-fried food; opt for grilled, steamed, baked, broiled, or poached, advises Biggest Loser trainer Bob Harper in 6 Weeks to a Healthier You. Don’t be afraid to ask to create your own dish, either, with chicken breast, broccoli, and a side of brown rice. Or make swaps to meals, especially in exchanging anything white for whole grains.

Alcohol. Consider it a treat. It hikes calories without providing many nutrients, and can impede weight loss by slowing the fat-burning process and stimulating your appetite, tricking you into eating more. If your doctor is OK with it, cap consumption at two drinks a day for men, one a day for women.

Timesavers. In a pinch, Biggest Loser’s “Simply Sensible” packaged entrees of beef tips and gravy or lasagna can keep you on track without your having to fire up the stove. There are also Biggest Loser-emblazoned bars, shakes, protein powder, and cream of wheat. And a packaged meal plan is even available through eDiets. (While cooking is preferred, consider the packaged meals a “plan B,” says a company representative.) Dieters can get 21 meals and 7 snacks for about $180.

Extras.The Biggest Loser name is on just about everything—workout videogames, CDs, and DVDs; food journals and calorie counters; dumbbells; step ladders; jump ropes; dry-erase boards; digital food scales; calendars; and sporty clothes. For an extra support boost, you can hire a one-on-one coach or join the online community (for a fee).

Fullness:

Nutrition experts emphasize the importance of satiety, the satisfied feeling that you’ve had enough. Since a fiber- or protein-packed meal or snack comes every few hours, you should keep hunger pangs at bay.

Taste:

You’re making everything, so if something doesn’t taste good, you know who to blame.

How much does it cost?

Fresh fruits, veggies, whole grains, and fish are generally more expensive than a cart full of sugary cereal, white bread, and sweets. But you’re not paying a membership fee, and you can tweak the suggested meal plans to bring the tab down—buy whatever produce is on sale that day at the grocery store, for example.

6 Weeks to a Healthier You is $22.

Does the diet allow for restrictions and preferences?

Anyone can follow this approach—choose your preference for more information.

The diet already emphasizes vegetarian- and vegan-friendly vegetables, fruits, and grains. Dieters need only swap out any animal protein for foods like legumes, tofu, or edamame.

Yes, you can choose products that are certified gluten-free.

It’s up to you to make sure your menu is low-sodium, but such a heavy emphasis on fruits and veggies (stick with fresh or sodium-free frozen) should make your job easier.

Yes, you have the freedom to use only kosher ingredients.

Yes, but it’s up to you to ensure your food conforms.

What is the role of exercise?

If you’re following 6 Weeks to a Healthier You, each week drills home the importance of exercise in combating and reversing common weight-related conditions, from type 2 diabetes to high blood pressure and heart disease. You’ll start out with body-weight training (lunges, squats, push-ups), then eventually move into aerobics, strength and resistance training, and even yoga and pilates. What matters most, though, is that you’re moving. Adults are generally encouraged to get at least 2½ hours of moderate-intensity activity (like brisk walking) a week, along with a couple days of muscle-strengthening activities.


Last updated by Kurtis Hiatt | December 12, 2013

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