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Dr. Ayala

Dr. Ayala
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
V.P. Product Development
Herbal Water
I’m a physician (Pediatrics and Medical Genetics), artist, and mother of 3 school age active kids. I recently co-founded Herbal Water Inc. (www.herbalwater.com) with my husband, Albert. I am a serious home cook, and love to entertain. My expertise is vegetarian food (I have been a vegetarian all my life). I strongly believe that eating healthy and enjoying good food go hand in hand. My main interests are science, nutrition and art, and I am overall a very curious person that tries to learn something new every day. Dr. Ayala (Ayala Laufer-Cahana M.D.)


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FEBRUARY 1, 2012 7:33AM

Does The Biggest Loser Fuel Weight Stigma?

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Overweight people are the majority in the US; a third of Americans are obese, so obese people can hardly be viewed as a small minority.

Nevertheless, overweight people face bias and discrimination every day.

Does the portrayal of obese people in the media reinforce weight bias?  Is the swelling roster of popular weight-loss reality TV shows supporting anti-fat attitudes? Or do these shows actually introduce viewers to the trials and tribulations of obese people, thus promoting sympathy and reducing prejudice? 

NBC’s The Biggest Loser is now in its 13th season and is a huge hit, with millions of viewers weekly, an online weight loss program, a line of diet and nutritional supplements, and two weight loss resorts.

The Biggest Loser clearly promotes weight loss, but some suggest that the show presents the unrealistic view that enormous weight loss can be achieved by willpower and very hard work – suggesting obesity is totally controllable. 

A new study in the journal Obesity examined how a 40-minute episode of The Biggest Loser affected viewers' anti-fat attitudes.

About 60 undergraduate students participated in the study, in which they were randomly assigned to watch an episode of The Biggest Loser or a nature film, while being told that the purpose of the study is to test the effect of media consumption on processing speed.  The participants’ attitude was gauged before and after the reality TV show by several established tests, developed to check for anti-fat sentiment, stereotypical attribution traits and bias.

Increased negative attitude

Watching The Biggest Loser (sans ads) did not improve attitudes towards obese people.  It made them worse.

The participants who watched The Biggest Loser reported greater dislike of obese people and greater belief that weight is controllable.

Since The Biggest Loser’s contestants show enormous commitment, hard work and perseverance, the researchers expected to see a change in anti-obese attitudes, and a shift in the positive traits attributed to obese people.  This did not happen. 

Does controllability translate to blame?

We tend to have greater compassion for conditions that are beyond human control, and spare less sympathy for what we believe are troubles that are entirely under the individual’s power to change.  If the take home message from The Biggest Loser is that weight loss is entirely a matter of hard work and overcoming obstacles, we can see how internalizing that idea would increase weight bias.  This study’s incendiary findings should be taken with a grain of salt though, due to the small study group composed of all young students – its authors advise as much. 

The reality of weight loss doesn’t make for compelling reality TV, I’m afraid.  Tara Parker-Pope’s recent article “The Fat Trap” tells the stories and the science behind why losing weight -- and especially keeping it off -- are beyond what most people are able to do. Although Parker-Pope’s article was widely spread I wonder how many TV viewers would tune in weekly for that kind of pessimistic analysis.

It’s complicated, but although we ultimately decide what and how much we put into our mouths obesity and overweight aren’t completely under most people’s control. Most people don’t want to be fat and are indeed spending lots of energy, time and money to get thinner. The fact that we have an obesity epidemic that is evident even among preschoolers indicates that gluttony and laziness don’t explain what's going on.

That’s not to say that weight loss is something we should give up on, but clearly, the only true, far-reaching solution to overweight is unsexy prevention – which of course doesn’t tell a compelling story, since averted trouble creates no drama at all.

Dr. Ayala

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Dr. Ayala.
I no read.
But, you
Your Post should be sent to Sam Kass at the White House.
Michelle Obama would be interested in your health views.
Mushrooms on Pizza Pie aren't fattening. Eat funguses. Fun.
slim wife
his wife shrieking
upon hearing mushrooms
are funguses
Perceptive of you to see that show in this light. Yes, it is a terrible show and so sad. The mean coaches are terrible human beings. The only way to lose weight is thru love of yourself and this show is harmful. Thanks for pointing this out.
As someone who lost 140+ lbs 16 yrs ago, I HATE these shows and the opportunistic cons (Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, gastric by-pass, ad nauseum) that spring therefrom.

Generally, it's hard to feel pain for a fat slob (what people are actually thinking) who just had to quit stuffing his/her face. But the truth is far more complex than that. Obesity has many, many root causes, and just as it takes time to take it off, so it took time to put ON.

What helped me most was the kindness and wisdom of a dietitian who took the time to sit down w/me and show me how to re-learn my habits and identify my "triggers" for overeating--usually stress and fatigue. I can't say I'm perfect, but I'm better than I was before. Strange as it sounds, adult-onset diabetes actually saved my life; I had to learn how to eat all over again. Now I'm in better health at age 50+ than I've ever been in my life; I now weigh less than when I graduated college and less than at age 14.

And I can't recommend therapy enough. As I said, the root of obesity, and any other compulsive disorder, lies buried deep underneath that compulsion. Find it, destroy it and the problem begins to solve itself.
@Art James and @zanelle, thanks for the kind comments.
@elsma03: I wish the entire viewership of weight-loss reality TV and weight loss ads could read your thoughtful comment.