The new season of The Biggest Loser means the popular TV show is once again a hot topic around the water cooler. Even as fans spend Wednesday morning rehashing the show, some in the fitness industry have recently criticized the show for its unrealistic depictions of weight loss. I recently caught up with Bob Harper, one of the show's trainers, to talk about what viewers should take away from the show—and what he thinks about carbs, colonics, and screaming trainers. Here are five take-aways from our chat:
- Nutrition is at least as important as exercise. People who begin a weight loss effort are often totally confused about the role of nutrition. Some think that if they work out, they can eat whatever they want. Not true! But Biggest Loser contestants often come in thinking the reverse, says Harper. "They think they'll work out a lot and won't eat at all," he says. Also not a good strategy. You need to hit the sweet spot: fueling your body enough with healthy foods to give you energy to get through the day (and your exercise routine), but not so much that you take in more than you're burning off.
[See what I wrote about diet and our 10-week workout routine.]
- Eliminating carbs is not a long-term solution. "People come in thinking it's going to be this all-protein world, and that they won't be eating carbs and grains," says Harper. "That extreme way of dieting doesn't work. I tell them that they could be on the show for one week or 12 weeks, but they have to learn something that will last the rest of their lives." Yes, Harper is a spokesman for the Grain Foods Foundation, which represents the milling and baking industry, so it's not likely that he's going to bash carbs. But he's absolutely right: You can't eliminate carbs, protein, or fat from your diet and expect to keep it up or run on all cylinders. Harper says the best ratio of those nutrients will vary by the individual. For himself, he prefers a 60-30-10 proportion of carbs, protein, and fat. (He is a vegetarian.)
- Take The Biggest Loser as inspiration, not as a blueprint. "I always tell people to use the show as a motivational tool and not compare [their efforts] to the weight loss we see on the show," says Harper. "It's an extreme situation—you can see someone who has had everything obstructing a healthy lifestyle overcome those things." A more realistic scenario is that if you shake up your eating for the better, you may see a large initial drop in your weight because of the change and because you're losing water weight. After that, he says, if you're dropping 1 or 2 pounds a week, you're right on track. "Get your brain wrapped around that," he says. "It's about a lifestyle change."
[Here are 7 tips to help you shed pounds sensibly.]
- And that means extreme behavior isn't going to work, long term. Some contestants have reportedly taken drastic measures—eliminating solid food, getting colonics—in order to get ready for the final weigh-in. Obviously, when $250,000 is on the line, the temptation to do whatever it takes is there. (Even I might do a master cleanse for that much money!) But the extreme methods don't please Harper; they certainly will not keep weight off for good. "There's a sign in the gym that says, 'It's not about the game,' " he says. Harper echoed what he said on this week's episode: "I hate the game. I hate game players. Game players get fat again."
- Don't be afraid your trainer is going to yell at you. Like the extreme exercise on the show, the trainers' histrionics aren't particularly real. "The screaming and the yelling would never go on in a real gym," says Harper. "That's the crazy TV mentality." When you pick a trainer, he says, you should consider not only qualifications but also training methods and whether you enjoy the trainer's company.
[Check out 10 excuses for not exercising—and why they won't fly.]