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In the eyes of millions of Americans, "The Biggest Loser" television show conveys an accurate depiction of reality.
Since its arrival on the NBC network in 2004, the show has provided an avenue for viewers to relate to teens, house moms and senior citizens who, like themselves, desire a more proactive approach to weight loss.
In an episode-by-episode chronology, at-home audience members are inspired as they follow contestants who take on the battle of obesity that currently plagues more than 35.7 percent of adults and 16.9 percent of children, according to data gathered by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published by the Journal of the American Medical Association in January 2012.
However, despite the ongoing popularity of the reality series, at least one former contestant has openly expressed concerns about the dangers associated with the show.
In a 2010 interview with Erica Hill of CBS News, Kai Hibbard, a contestant from season 3, spoke out about many of the stresses and pressures the contestants deal with on a consistent basis.
"I found myself loathing what I looked like the more weight that I dropped because of the pressure on me," Hibbard said. "I found myself doing things like considering coffee a meal. And because of the pressures on the show, it was considered acceptable to behave that way."
Hibbard said she is not alone.
She noted that several fellow competitors made frequent calls to her after the season concluded, often to complain about lingering health issues.
"I participated in something that I feel is harmful to so many people, so I own responsibility to make it better," Hibbard said. "I'm not making any money off this. I am not getting anything out of it except for the fact that maybe I'm redeeming myself a little bit for being too much of a coward at that finale."
Hibbard went on to say that contestants were often pushed to exercise when injured, or told to use dehydration methods to manipulate the scale. The advice of prestigious nutritionists often took a back seat to the instruction of the trainers.
Since being a contestant on the show, Hibbard has fought an intense battle with an eating disorder and gained back 70 pounds of weight. Of course, gaining weight after the return home is nothing out of the ordinary for contestants. MSNBC recently caught up with the champions of the past 11 seasons and found that most had gained at least 40-50 pounds since the final weigh-in. Some of the competitors currently stand only a few pounds shy of their original weight before arrival on the ranch.
Though Hibbard has openly bashed the NBC production, there are others who believe the show provides a life-changing experience for contestants. Deni Hill, winner of the season 11 at-home prize, is one of the show’s faithful advocates.
“The show changed my life," she said. "When it comes down to it, the focus is on the lifestyle change. To keep the weight off, you simply have to adjust to a different lifestyle. This show helped me learn I could do more than I ever imagined.”
She went on to say that the solution to weight loss is uncovering the source of a deeper problem.
“I’m not one that normally asks for help, but I learned on the ranch that it is essential," she said. "All the trainers were great. They always took the time to do in-depth interviews with us even when the cameras were off. They showed interest in our lives, and helped us discover what was keeping us from achieving our goals.”
In addition, Hill dispelled comments that contestants are encouraged to approach the scale dehydrated or ignore the advice of doctors and nutritionists. She elaborated, saying the trainers make sure each competitor is fully hydrated prior to weighing in, and that all activity is closely monitored by physicians. She did, however, reveal that losing 15-20 pounds in a week is not common.
“You might call it a TV leak," she said. "Don’t expect the huge numbers you see on TV. Sometimes we have two to three weeks between weigh-ins. Season 11 was even on strike for a time. The best way to lose weight is to work out about 90 minutes a day, and lose 1-3 pounds per week.”
When asked if the trainers ever encouraged unhealthy habits or activities, Hill responded with a chuckle.
“Bob and Jillian always pushed a bit farther than the rest," she said. "I might not have survived if I stayed with Bob the whole time. He would have killed me with cardio.”
Faced with differing opinions, viewers must choose what to believe. Some, like Hill, believe the “Biggest Loser” program is meant to inspire and uplift. Others, like Hibbard, are now asking, is the program really designed to change lives, or is it just another Hollywood stunt?