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The Biggest Loser: Researchers are Paying Attention

rebecca puhl, Other, 12:51PM Dec 11, 2012

To date, one of the most popular reality television shows in America is The Biggest Loser. While the premise of the show (to promote significant weight loss among its contestants) is clearly apparent, the show has come under criticism from health experts for the methods and rate in which weight loss is achieved, the artificial environment created on the show which cannot be realistically replicated for the vast majority of Americans to want to lose weight, as well as the overly simplistic message communicated by the show that significant weight loss can be achieved through discipline and willpower. This season, for the first time, the show is now allowing youth to compete to become the biggest loser.

While this show continues to reign in high ratings, it appears that researchers are also paying attention, and have started to study the potential impact of this show on its viewers. In the past year, three new peer-reviewed studies have been published, each of which raises additional cause for concern regarding the messages and potential impact of The Biggest Loser on public attitudes and behaviors.

In the first study, Domoff and colleagues (2012) examined how exposure to 40 minutes of The Biggest Loser impacted participants' levels of weight bias. In their experimental study, participants were randomly assigned to either an experimental (one episode of The Biggest Loser) or control (one episode of a nature reality show) condition. Levels of weight bias were measured at baseline and following the episode viewing (1 week later). Participants in The Biggest Loser condition had significantly higher levels of dislike of overweight individuals and more strongly believed that weight is controllable after the exposure. Participants who had lower BMIs and were not trying to lose weight had significantly higher levels of dislike of overweight individuals following exposure to The Biggest Loser compared to similar participants in the control condition. Overall, the findings of this study indicate that stigmatizing attitudes toward obese persons increase after a brief exposure to the show.

In the second study, Yoo (2012) examined antecedents and outcomes of watching The Biggest Loser with the Orientation1-Stimulus-Orientation2-Response (O-S-O-R) model. The study found that individuals who are more concerned with their weight watch more episodes of The Biggest Loser, and that watching the show leads to greater views that body weight is under personal control, which in turn predicted attributions that obesity is simply an issue of personal responsibility. The author concludes that exposure to The Biggest Loser may reinforce the notion that individuals control their own weight and thus further amplify stigma of obese persons.

A third study, by Berry and colleagues (and coming out in 2013), assessed whether participants who watched an exercise-related segment of The Biggest Loser would have different exercise-related attitudes than those of control participants. In this experimental study, participants watched a clip of The Biggest Loser or American Idol, then completed a Go/No-go Association Task, a thought-listing task, and questionnaires measuring explicit attitudes, activity level, and mood. Results showed that participants who watched The Biggest Loser had significantly lower explicit attitudes towards exercise than did control participants. The authors call for a need for closer examination of the influence of media depictions of exercise on public health behaviors.

The Biggest Loser states that it aims to “challenge and inspire America”. But the findings of these studies all point to some less-than-inspiring findings. Based on this evidence, it appears that the show may be reinforcing weight-based stereotypes toward obese individuals and may not be particularly motivational for encouraging exercise behaviors. With children now competing on the show this season, these research findings are particularly important, especially in light of the show’s statement on their website, stating that “"The Biggest Loser" is committed to fighting this epidemic by featuring children this season to serve as ambassadors of change who can inspire kids all over the country to get healthy.” Based on the research so far, it appears that these positive intentions could have some unintended consequences. I hope that researchers will continue to pay attention to this and study the true impact of the show – especially on America’s youth who are watching. 



Berry TR, McLeod NC, Pankratow M, Walker J. Effects of Biggest Loser exercise depictions on exercise-related attitudes. Am J Health Behav. 2013 Jan;37(1):96-103. doi: 10.5993/AJHB.37.1.11.

Domoff SE, Hinman NG, Koball AM, Storfer-Isser A, Carhart VL, Baik KD, Carels RA. The effects of reality television on weight bias: An examination of The Biggest Loser.  Obesity (2012); 20 5, 993–998. doi:10.1038/oby.2011.378

Yoo JH. No clear winner: Effects of The Biggest Loser on the Stigmatization of Obese Persons. Health Communication 2012. DOI:10.1080/10410236.2012.684143

About This Blog

Sizable Issues is a blog featuring timely research findings and provocative commentary about the stigma and prejudice related to obesity -- also known as "weight bias" -- and its implications for healthcare and quality of life for people struggling with weight.

Disclosure: Rebecca M. Puhl, PhD, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

  • rebecca puhl

    Rebecca Puhl, PhD is the Deputy Director at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. She received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Yale University. As a clinical psychologist, she has treated patients with eating disorders, binge-eating, and obesity. As a Senior Research Scientist, Dr. Puhl has been studying weight bias for ten years, and has published studies on the prevalence and origins of weight stigma, interventions to reduce weight bias, and the impact of weight stigma on emotional and physical health. Dr. Puhl serves as chair of the Weight Bias Task Force of The Obesity Society (TOS), and is an editor of the book Weight Bias: Nature, Extent, and Remedies (Guilford Press, 2005). To read more about her research, visit

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