The ‘Biggest Loser’ Results Aren’t Surprising—But Don’t Lose Hope!

Jennifer Lovejoy, Arivale Chief Translational Science Officer, PhD
Jennifer Lovejoy
Arivale Chief Translational Science Officer, PhD

In recent news, there’s been a flurry of attention on the results of a six-year follow-up study of contestants on the popular reality TV show “The Biggest Loser.” The study, conducted by respected researchers at the National Institutes of Health, found that the former TV contestants regained most, if not all, of the weight they lost, and experienced a major drop in metabolic rate (the amount of calories your body burns at rest) that persisted for six years after the initial weight loss, even when weight was regained.

While the study is novel in showing how long the biological changes that occur with drastic weight loss persist over time, the conclusion is not really surprising.  It’s long been known that weight loss results in a drop in metabolic rate (meaning it takes fewer calories to gain weight) and that this reduction persists at least two years.

Furthermore, researchers from Columbia University, in particular Dr. Michael Rosenbaum, have shown in a series of studies that weight loss increases appetite hormones, alters muscle efficiency so that it takes higher amounts of exercise to achieve moderate calorie burning, and even changes the way the brain perceives food so that we are more likely to overeat.

In short, there are many well-known biological reasons why keeping the pounds off after weight loss is so difficult.  Your biology fights back, and the more rapid and significant your weight loss, the tougher the battle. This is why the long-term results of the “Biggest Loser” contestants are not surprising. The entire premise of the show set them up for this struggle.  It may be good entertainment but it’s not Scientific Wellness!

While these biological facts can seem discouraging for those trying to lose weight, there is definitely no reason to give up hope.  First, we know that it’s absolutely possible for people to lose significant amounts of weight and keep it off.  Many behavioral weight loss studies, as well as the National Weight Control Registry, confirm that sustained weight loss is possible for a large percentage of people who try.  The key is going about it the right way.

1. Aim for the clinically recommended target for weight loss—5-10% of initial weight.

Don’t try a “Biggest Loser” approach of dropping as many pounds as you can as fast as possible. The biological adaptations that promote weight regain can be more manageable with modest initial weight loss.  If you have more than 5-10% to lose, take it a little bit at a time: lose 5-10%, then practice maintaining that loss for 3-6 months, then lose another 5-10% and make sure you can keep that off.  You didn’t gain the weight overnight so don’t expect to lose it overnight.

2. Prepare yourself up front for the work of maintaining weight loss.

Many people start a diet and plan for all the initial stages of losing weight but don’t think about what it’s going to take in the long run to keep weight off.  In particular, research shows that fairly high levels of exercise are required to overcome some of the biological adaptations from weight loss.  Prepare at the start of your program on how to make some significant lifestyle changes long-term.

3. Find ways to “trick” the weight-gain-promoting biology when possible.

Your Coach can help you figure out ways to manage your hunger hormones (like eating larger, yet lower-calorie, meals) as well as suggest mental and emotional strategies to “surf the urge” when hunger cravings strike.  In addition, take a look at your genetic predisposition to hold onto excess weight on your dashboard, under “Clinical Results” Weight Loss and Diet measures, and also look at what type of nutrients you may be most responsive to when it comes to weight gain.


Although genetic science is still in its infancy, there may be clues to help work with your own body’s tendencies that can make weight loss maintenance easier.

4. Self-monitor your food and your weight.

A cornerstone of behavioral weight loss success is knowing exactly what and how much you are eating, especially as you transition from weight loss to weight maintenance. And keeping track of your weight weekly is critical for knowing if pounds are starting to creep up so you can prevent regain.

5. Don’t let a “lapse” turn into a “relapse.”

Long term weight management is hard and everybody will fall off the wagon. Plan for this from the outset so you don’t get caught up in guilt and self-recrimination when you have a lapse. You don’t want to let one donut turn into a dozen…

Your Coach can help you with these and other evidence-based strategies for long-term weight loss success.  So turn off the “Biggest Loser” and gear up for your journey to weight loss success!