Wednesday, March 25, 2015

I Want To Talk About These Biggest Loser Contests At Work

This essay has depictions of extreme and likely unhealthy diet tactics.

I'm going to start with the conclusion here, first: If you're in charge of a Biggest Loser contest, or considering suggesting one, or have any power in deciding whether to start one... I'd like you to strongly reconsider that.

I am overweight by about, oh, maybe fifty pounds.  Like many other people, I have struggled to lose weight, something which I continue to attempt time and time again and will likely continue to attempt for the foreseeable future.  And with apologies to those for whom even the mere mention of the subject is enough to make them angry, I am not really ashamed of dieting.  One thing I am pretty adamant about, though:  Dieting should be a choice people make based on their own preferences.

There's a phenomenon that's been going strong for a couple years now, which is the idea of a workplace weight loss contest.  Usually they call it "The Biggest Loser" after the hit TV show, and there's often a cash prize.  The contest that inspired me to write this has a cash prize for the winner of $500 ($100 is pretty common), something I overheard over the water cooler recently.

Right now the person winning the local Biggest Loser contest has been doing it primarily by fasting throughout the day, eating very little when he does eat, and trying his hardest to lose water (through sweating before weigh-ins among other more concerning things).  His reasoning is competitive... he only diets during Biggest Loser contests, and only because he wants to win the cash prize at the end.  He'll gain it back when the contest is over and then next year do it all over again.  This is a well-known fact.

Although this is a really extreme case, I was reminded of when my mother was still working.  Her workplace also had a Biggest Loser contest which she did pretty well in... basically by eating nothing and beating the hell out of herself emotionally if she ever did eat anything enjoyable.

Note I'm not even talking about the television program "The Biggest Loser."  A lot has already been written about how absolutely nasty this program is.  But you know what?  At the very least, the television show has trainers.  And while I have no doubt there are workplace programs that also involve some sort of trainer or savvy person, I have yet to actually encounter one.  Instead I encounter people with stories (most of which they think are just hilarious) of people going to great extremes to win the contests.

This is the sort of thing that naturally happens when you reward people for losing weight as quickly as possible with anything other than their own self-satisfaction.  When your only standard is sheer weight, it doesn't matter exactly how that weight is lost.  It could be fat, but it also could be water, muscle, or some other human body component and it would still count as weight loss.  This leads to financially desperate or particularly competitive people in those situations deliberately losing weight they know to be temporary (water, especially) and not eating anything close to a nutritionally adequate diet for that hundred or so dollars.

Has there ever been any winner of a workplace "Biggest Loser" knockoff who has long-term maintained their weight loss?  Probably.  But everything about this method of motivating people is destined to promote temporary, rapid, unhealthy weight loss without concern for whether or not it's actually good for the person in question.

More importantly, what do programs like this do for people who are already an average weight?  Already underweight?  Or perhaps more importantly, people with eating disorders?  Is having a month or two long contest in which a bunch of people who may or may not have any idea what healthy weight loss even looks like obsess over every calorie going to be good for people who are an inch from relapse, who may be too ashamed to even bring it up?  And as somebody who has an easily-triggered eating disorder, I would not make the case that you should stifle discussion about food or diet among co-workers, but this particular phenomenon is a particularly nasty and harmful one even if people don't have eating disorders.

To reiterate the conclusion I stated at the beginning, I have seen practically no evidence that this practice is anything other than useless weight-shaming ridiculousness that doesn't result in what it's meant to result in.  If you have any say, please stay away.