“The Biggest Loser” Wants To Fight Childhood Obesity By Featuring Teen Contestants

Obesity experts say they’re going about it all wrong.

When The Biggest Loser premieres its 14th season in January, each of the three six-person teams will include at least one overweight teenager between the ages of 13 and 17.

Jillian Michaels, who serves as a trainer on the show, announced the news on the Today show this morning. She immediately acknowledged the controversy that’s sure to arise from encouraging minors to lose weight on national television, but said she was eager to be a part of the dialogue surrounding childhood obesity. “We’re very cognizant of how touchy it is, how controversial it is, and yet of course that’s exactly where I want to be,” she told Al Roker.

Discussion surrounding “exploiting” kids and teens on reality TV, as well as weight loss in children are both currently hot topics in the news — and they’re also both at play here. Shows like Toddlers and Tiaras and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo have been called exploitative, and Michelle Obama’s fight to end childhood obesity has been similarly dissected.

Dr. Rebecca Puhl, Director of Research and Weight Stigma Initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, told me that having teenagers on The Biggest Loser is not only controversial, but also dangerous.

“I have concerns about this announcement given the nature of the tactics that have been previously used on the show, which include trainers yelling at contestants, contestants engaging in extreme exercise to the point of illness and exhaustion, the rapid rate of weight loss (and weight re-gain following the show that can occur for contestants), and the one-sided focus on personal responsibility for weight, which ignores the societal conditions that adolescents live in, which have largely created obesity in the first place,” she wrote in an email.

NBC has stated that the teenage contestants won’t have to step on the scale for the whole world to see, that the emphasis will be on “health,” and that the teens won’t compete for the $250,000 prize. But Puhl said involving teenagers in a weight loss competition is a bad idea, period.

“Although it sounds like the show intends to take some positive steps to be sensitive to adolescents, such as removing the weekly weigh-ins and not forcing them to leave the show if they don’t lose sufficient weight, the contestants will nevertheless still be pitted against each other, and the show’s title still communicates that being a winner ultimately means losing the most weight,” she added.

Michaels and NBC have both said that this is an attempt to combat childhood obesity and educate teens about health. But Puhl insisted that if a TV show really wanted to fix the problem, it would instead educate and promote activism. Have them “start petitions to remove vending machines from their schools,” she suggested.

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