Since National Eating Disorders Awareness week is February 23 – March 1, 2014 I’ve decided to write about how food, weight, and conversations about the two affect us emotionally. The Biggest Loser, a show on NBC, recently premiered its season finale and within minutes controversy ensued. For those of you who are unaware the premise of the show I’ll briefly explain how it works. Fifteen people spend approximately four months away from home on a ranch together and compete to lose weight. They work out daily with trainers while modifying their food consumption. Each week contestants are weighed before the cameras where the audience sees dramatic weight lose, sometimes resulting in as much as ten pounds in one week. Eventually, the contestants dwindle down and the final three people go home for about three months where they along have to push themselves to lose weight. The season finale consists of those three contestants coming back to the show for a final weigh in. The person who has lost the most weight is crowned the winner. The single goal for these contestants is to lose weight. The latest winner lost a grand total of 155 pounds, which averages to about 5 pounds a week. Please note that healthy weight loss occurs at 1-2 pounds a week. This winner does not come close to holding the record for greatest weight loss but this time there seemed to be a slight problem. When the finalist made her grand appearance two of the trainers on the show had very concerned looks on their faces. Since the finale last week, audience members and past biggest loser contestants have voiced uneasiness about how thin this particular finalist looked. I am not here to comment on the finalist and her weight loss but I do want to talk about some of my concerns with the show.
NBC says that there are a team of doctors, nutritionists, and trainers who work with the contestants behind the scenes as well as in front of the cameras. One immediate problem I see is that I have never heard the network or past contestants talk about a therapist being on the show, even behind the closed doors. I cannot say for certain whether or not there is one but it is a problem that talk therapy is not being discussed openly. Losing and gaining weight is not only about how many calories you eat or burn through exercise. Weight and how people treat their bodies can also be a reflection of how they are feeling emotionally. This is something that society often forgets. When someone feels their life is out of control they can use food as a way of gaining control amidst chaos. A woman going through a very upsetting breakup may begin heavily restricting her diet and cutting back on calories because her body becomes the only thing she feels she can control during this depressed time in her life. Or someone feels they must always be perfect in front of other people and are searching for a way to let themselves lose control so they end up binge eating and then feel guilt over losing control so they turn to purging as a way to feel in control again. Eating disorders are complicated and different for each individual.
The above examples might make you think of someone suffering from either Anorexia nervosa or Bulimia but there is another eating disorder not discussed as often, Binge Eating. Sometimes people see a heavy person walking down the street and immediately think they are lazy and simply don’t try or care to lose weight. Being overweight can be a sign of emotional stress as well as a sign of Binge Eating. Men and women who have a hard time expressing and managing their feelings may have learned that food could comfort them or help distract them from having to deal with uncomfortable feelings. Once a behavior is learned it is extremely difficult to unlearn the behavior. The Biggest Loser may help people lose weight in the moment but if people are not looking at the underlying causes related to their weight they are going to have trouble maintaining their weight loss. It is crucial that individuals think about their relationship with food, weight, and their body when considering any sort of weight loss.
The Biggest Loser has contestants on the ranch working out for multiple hours of the day and losing an absurd amount of weight in a short amount of time. The show screams unhealthy and unrealistic yet it is clearly popular because it just ended its fifteenth season. This brings me to my second point, how we talk about food, weight, and our bodies. For this part I will speak from a female’s perspective. Women tend to talk about these things all of the time. I can’t say why this happens but I can say that multiple patients have experienced these conversations with friends on a daily basis. Women may go to their friends for reassurance about how they look or what they are eating without thinking about their friends’ own struggle with these issues. Many men and women with eating disorders keep the eating disorder to themselves. You may think you’re innocently complaining to your friend about how much you just ate without knowing that friend is struggling with his or her own issues around food. The topic of food and weight is so ingrained within women’s language that women are not realizing how much it is actually consuming their conversation. The women who are most aware are those who are trying to stop being so obsessive about what they are eating or how they look. Try paying attention to conversations you have with your female friends over the next week and make note of every time either you or your friend mentions weight or what and how much food they ate. The number will probably surprise you. Shows like The Biggest Loser continue to propel these conversations. How can someone watch a show like this and not comment on someone losing 15 pounds in one week? I don’t know how we stop these conversations from consistently continuing but I think having awareness is the first step.