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What’s Wrong with Weight Reality Shows?

America is obsessed with watching its weight, and not just on the bathroom scale.

There has been a rash of reality television shows dealing with weight and dieting in recent years, including “The Biggest Loser” on NBC, “Ruby” on Style Network, and “Dance Your A** Off” on Oxygen.

Are these programs exploitive or are do they really encourage viewers to live healthy lifestyles?

We asked a panel of social workers who are experts on health and wellness issues to comment on television shows that focus on weight. The panelists are:

Francis L. Battisti, PhD, LCSW, BCD: CEO of Battisti Networks, a multi-discipline consulting firm specializing in individual and organizational transformation and life enhancement. Battisti is also professor of psychology and human services at the State University of New York — Broome Community College Campus.

Lorette Lavine, MSW, LCSW: A social worker at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago, adjunct instructor at the Loyola University School of Social Work, and adjunct faculty member at the university.

Judith Matz, MSW, LCSW: Director of the Chicago Center for Overcoming Overeating, Inc. and co-author of “The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care” ($12.95, Sourcebooks Inc.) and “Beyond a Shadow of a Diet: The Therapist’s Guide to Treating Compulsive Eating” ($37.50, Routledge).

Deirdra Robinson, MSW, CSW, PhD: Member of the clinical faculty at the University of Kentucky, program manager of the Appalachian Community Cancer Network, and vice president of the National Association of Social Workers Kentucky Chapter.

From left: Francis Battisti, Lorette Lavine, Judith Matz and Deirdra Robinson.

Q: Why are there so many television shows about losing weight? Are Americans obsessed with this issue?

BATTISTI: To place the weight issue in perspective let’s review the data. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reports obesity rates increased dramatically in the last 25 years. A 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with RTI International, found that direct and indirect costs of obesity are as high as $147 billion annually. A 2009 Health Affairs journal study concluded that the costs of hospitalizations related to childhood obesity rose from $125.9 million in 2001 to $237.6 million in 2005. From this perspective, I believe that the increase in the number of television shows that focus on weight issues is a direct result of the aforementioned data.

LAVINE: I agree the shows reflect the fact more people watching television are overweight and morbidly obese. American adults and children are suffering from this serious health problem at an enormously high rate. The networks are also hoping to gain viewers as well.

MATZ: Our culture also has an unhealthy preoccupation with weight — and with dieting as a way to lose that weight. If you look at the scientific research people can actually be healthy at a lot of different body sizes. The problem is that dramatic weight loss makes for good TV ratings. It speaks to people’s fantasies that if they can just become thin enough other problems — such as low self-esteem, relationship issues, or general dissatisfaction with life — will melt away along with the pounds.

ROBINSON: I think there has always been a cultural preference to people who are skinny. People who are overweight or obese carry a label and are outcast. The television show explosion, I believe, is the result of the reality show phenomenon coupled with America’s obsession with being thin. It’s a perfect marriage. Offer people who are severely obese so other Americans can offer justification as to why that isn’t their situation.

Ruby on Style Network.

Q: Do you think these television programs inspire others to get up and lose weight?

LAVINE: I actually do believe that “Ruby” and “America’s Biggest Loser” do inspire others to try to lose weight. Viewers see these people work very hard to achieve goals, which seem to be almost impossible from their first weigh-in to last. These shows also illustrate the fact that it takes a team of supporters to achieve their weight loss goals. Support is so important in losing the weight and keeping it off. There is also an emphasis on living a healthy lifestyle, not just dieting and shedding pounds.

MATZ: There is no doubt that these shows cause people to feel that they need to do something about their weight. Unfortunately this “inspiration” usually does more harm than good. Weight loss reality shows normalize unhealthy behaviors such as restricting dieting and over exercising. The focus on weight loss as motivation to change one’s lifestyle hurts the people participating in “The Biggest Loser” as well as viewers who believe that they too, should engage in diet-driven behavior.

ROBINSON: I have differing opinion than Judith and Lorette. I think these programs offer those who are obese or overweight a normalization option, a “see, they are like me attitude.” However, these types of television programs use a hygienic approach. This means they are done in a sterile, non-realistic environment. There is little sustainability. I don’t believe this is motivating, as most viewers will simply say, “If I had those resources, I could weigh 120 pounds, too.”

Q: What about the argument that these shows can be downright exploitive?

BATTISTI: These programs are primarily geared toward keeping audience members high by keeping viewers watching by editing and selectively showing “emotionally charged” moments. The message directly or indirectly given is that, if the participant tries hard enough or wants it hard enough, they can make it happen. This naïve concept leads directly to bias and ridicule. If this biased concept was true, two-thirds of our population would not be obese. The issue is not about losing weight — it’s about developing life-long lifestyle change. And this does not occur by watching a television show. In fact, television watching can add to the misinformation concerning what needs to be done to develop a healthy lifestyle.

MATZ: All reality shows, whether they focus on weight or any other issue, appeal to our desire to find out what’s going on in the lives of others. We can watch how someone else is handling life’s challenges and say, “I feel like that sometimes,” or, “At least that’s not me.” In a sense, any reality show is exploitive of its participants; but regardless how you feel about reality shows it’s always important to treat people with respect. The problem with reality shows that focus on weight is that there is an implicit message of shame that the person is not okay.

Q: Eating or overeating can be tied to a person’s emotional state. Would these shows be improved if they examined what factors in a person’s life contributed to their weight?

ROBINSON: I don’t know if addressing the origin of the weight problem is the key. I believe how or why someone is the weight they are is important but not the defining issue. Individuals have to believe and be empowered and these types of shows don’t offer enough practical approaches to doing something about it. Rather, it’s about the drama of the issues.

MATZ: As to focusing on how people became heavy, that’s an interesting question. Focusing on why someone is fat presumes that weight is always within our control. It’s important to keep in mind that weight is a characteristic and not a behavior. Although our lifestyle certainly can affect our weight, science shows that our set point — or natural weight — is determined in large part by our genetics. We stay in our set point range if we eat when hungry, stop when satiated, and move our bodies in a way that is comfortable. Human physiology has been programmed through evolution and adaptation to respond to times of famine in ways that maximize species survival; our bodies are actually wired to fight against weight loss. Each time the body defends itself against a diet it becomes more efficient at storing fat. When we diet, our set point gets reset at a higher weight, so one of the many reasons for weight gain is the increase in dieting over the past few decades. As for psychological factors, people who are fat have no more or less issues than people who are thin. And there are thin people who engage in very serious eating disordered behavior. There are compulsive eaters who are “normal” weight and there are fat people who do not overeat. So focusing on how some came to be their current size is not necessarily an answerable question. Focusing on why people have trouble practicing caretaking behaviors would be a more useful concept.

Scene from "Dance Your A** Off" on Oxygen.

Q: “Dance Your A** Off” on the Oxygen Channel has contestants compete against each other by doing dance routines and losing weight. Does this program send a positive message about physical activity? Or does it hold heavier people up for derision by having them compete in sometimes skimpy attire?

LAVINE: I am not particularly a fan of “Dance Your Ass Off” but in today’s environment I think that anything that encourages increased physical activity is definitely a positive thing. The skimpy attire is for the television ratings. In general the things that are for ratings do not usually appeal to me but that is part of the media hype…so be it!

ROBINSON: This show exploits the concept of “Dancing with the Stars.” These people aren’t judged by their talent or their dancing technique. The concept of health isn’t promoted. The topic of self-esteem and confidence and healthy choices are not addressed. This show seems to be more focused on mirroring “Dancing with the Stars” in a way that gathers ratings.

MATZ: Reality dance shows such as “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance” have been immensely popular with TV viewers. I hope these programs send a positive message that physical activity doesn’t have to be tedious — dance is a wonderful way to move one’s body and have fun at the same time. The problem with the show “Dance Your A** Off” is that it uses contestants’ weekly weigh-ins to determine the scores, which then promotes unhealthy behaviors such as over-exercising and restricting. It also sends the message that if you exercise and don’t lose weight it’s not worth it. I would much prefer to see reality shows where people of all sizes are invited to compete and the focus is on talent rather than weight. As for skimpy attire, people have different levels of comfort as to how much skin is revealed on TV shows. I am no more or less uncomfortable with skimpy outfits when a person is heavy than when a person is thinner.

Q: National Association of Social Workers member Shay Sorrells was a popular contestant on “America’s Biggest Loser.” Amanda Davis, another social worker, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show for a weight loss challenge. Sorrells said her weight loss inspired her to help others live healthier lives and eat better. What role should social workers take in helping clients lose weight?

BATTISTI: The ecological systems and social work, strength-based perspectives offer ideal concepts to address the obesity issue. Social work intervention needs to be based on a firm understanding of the psychosocial elements within the family structure and the ecology system within which the individual lives. Oriented toward strengths and competence of the client, the strengths perspective represents a collection of ideas and techniques that identifies a lens of empowerment through which to view the world of the client. The strengths perspective connects with the essence of the social work profession. It articulates the core values of integrity, distributive justice, dignity and worth of the individual and the quality of therapeutic relationship.

LAVINE: Social workers have a role cut out for them working with clients that are overweight. It could be a coaching, therapeutic role which helps a person to achieve his/her goals along with other disciplines advising them on proper diet and exercise. It is all part of a successful weight loss program and in my opinion it could help someone keep the weight off.

MATZ: Social workers have an obligation to promote practices that help our clients improve their lives. It is imperative that social workers understand the research related to dieting, health and weight, and that we offer services that foster our clients’ physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Statistically 95 percent to 98 percent of people who embark on diets will gain back the weight and two-thirds will end up heavier than their pre-diet weight. Instead, we need to lead the way in influencing policies and offering services that will support healthful and sustainable lifestyles for our clients and our communities. I co-wrote “Beyond a Shadow of a Diet: The Therapist’s Guide to Treating Compulsive Eating” because social workers and other mental health professionals do not usually receive training in these areas.

ROBINSON: Social workers have a unique understanding of how individuals function in their own environments. Of course social workers should be leading this charge. We understand the needs of individuals — their need for support, direction and education. And we also understand how to mobilize the community to best support the individual. Social workers are critical to the issue of obesity.

Q: If you could create a television program to encourage people to lose weight how would it be formatted?

MATZ: Rather than creating a TV show that focuses on weight loss I would much prefer to see people who struggle with overeating and poor body image learn how to strengthen themselves physically and emotionally so that they can live more fully in the world. Since I co-authored “The Diet Survivor’s Handbook” with my sister and fellow social worker Ellen Frankel my ideal show would feature us as Diet Survivor Sisters. We would create a “Diet Survivors” reality show where people would make the revolutionary decision to quit dieting. Instead therapists, dieticians and exercise physiologists would teach participants how to make peace with food by ending the deprivation of diets and learning to honor their hunger and fullness. Participants would improve their health and fitness level by finding ways to exercise that feels comfortable and joyful. Ultimately, each participant would follow her dream, whether it’s to climb a mountain in the Himalayas, learn to scuba dive off the coast of Belize, or hike along the coast of Italy. Diet Survivors would focus on creating a supportive and collaborative environment rather than encouraging competition among participants and viewing weight loss as the ultimate goal. Any takers?

BATTISTI: The ideal television presentation would consist of two interconnected segment venues.  The first venue would assemble a team of professionals (medical professional, dietitian, exercise physiologist and social worker) who possess a clinical background in obesity for working with participants.  The show would be aired once-a-month for a year and would follow the clinical treatment of the participants.  From diagnosis, to treatment, to maintenance, each participant would be observed, interviewed and triaged.  The true focus of editing would be to offer a snapshot of diagnostic treatment.  The second segment venue, which would be offered during the other three weeks of the month, would focus on different modalities of health intervention with different participants.  Developing a healthy lifestyle and successful ecological intervention approaches, which have been put in place and offer hopeful results, would be the content of this segment venue. Examples of successful ecological interventions could include:  Shape-Up Summerville, a city-wide health enhancement program, successful worksite health intervention programs funded by The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), and   the Sustainable Nutrition Application Program (SNAP), a Blue Cross/Blue Shield funded childhood-family obesity intervention program. A health promotion model would be used as the format of this show.

LAVINE: I like the “Biggest Loser” format where there is a competition as well as teamwork. This is supportive and challenging at the same time. However, I think that there could be more focus on healthy eating. They do share recipes at times but the show is mostly about the exercise and the competitions. Personally, I would put more emphasis on food preparation and how to adjust a person’s eating habits. But again, I would also look at what captures ratings as I feel that the more people that are reached by these shows the better. Obesity is a serious problem and can lead to so many other medical problems — diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure and eventually death. A sad fact is that many young people will not live to be as old as their parents due to poor eating habits and obesity. That is not only sad but intolerable.

ROBINSON: I would create a show that offered individuals who were obese weight loss options that are sustainable.  The physical fitness component would be about personal bests – how much did the person push him or herself to do their personal best.  This could easily be calculated using stats.  Additionally, I would give participants points for healthy cooking.  I would give them a food that most people enjoy and ask them to research and prepare a healthy version of it, perhaps using the taste testing method like on “America’s Next Great Chef.” The most important component would be offering participants points for documentation – food diaries and workout logs. Research shows this is what causes lifestyle changes – and that’s the only place where success in weight loss occurs.

For more information on how social workers help consumers live healthier lifestyles, visit the National Association of Social Workers’ “Help Starts Here” Health and Wellness Web page by clicking here.

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  1. Thanks for posting this article – definitely an interesting issue! I think the same could be said for shows that feature people who have addictions (ie. Intervention, Addicted), people who have compulsive behaviors (ie. Obsessed, Hoarders, Hoarding – Buried Alive), and other shows that follow people’s stories or personal battles with various problems (ie. MTV’s True Life, dieting-related shows, etc.). While these shows are entertaining to most people, the question remains: are these shows exploitative to the people in them? While the participants are all consenting adults, one still wonders if perhaps the focus of the TV show is always innocent. In a show like Intervention, for example, the person with the addiction is given the opportunity to get treatment for the addiction, paid for by the TV show of course, and this might be the only way that some people would be able to afford treatment. However, the trade-off is that millions of people can now see some of that person’s darkest, most desperate moments, all for the sake of entertainment. Yes, these shows do raise awareness about these issues and the people that struggle with them, but most people who watch these shows are doing so for entertainment, not education and enhanced empathy, after all. I wonder how the lives of participants of such shows are impacted, both positively and negatively, from their experiences with a TV show.

  2. The question should be “What’s wrong with reality shows?”

  3. In regards to the question posted “Why are there so many television shows about losing weight? Are Americans obsessed with this issue?”I would strongly have to argue that yes, we are indeed obsessed. In addition to Francis Battisti’s statistics that pretty much sum up and prove that argument, you can also just take a step back and look at the issue as a whole. Weight, regardless of the portion, is becoming more and more of an issue. As a fairly young student I have witnessed the dramatic focus of weight in my everyday life. You either hear about people criticizing someone for being too skinny, or too large. Regardless neither seems to be socially acceptable. In more cases than the other it is becoming more and more unacceptable to be overweight. So much so that these overweight people over the years have had many stereotypes placed on them, some including laziness, obsessive, unmotivated, and depressed. You turn on the TV and half of the commercials you see are based on weight. Whether it is advertisements for the newest diet pills, exercise plans, whichever, you constantly see the topic being brought up. In regards to the television shows, it only makes sense that there would be more and more shows being based on losing weight. The goal of television shows is to get as many viewers as possible. The people who create these shows look for things that they believe us viewers would be interested in. It only seems logical that shows on losing weight would have high viewing when it seems as if we cannot stop focusing on the topic.

  4. I think it is obvious that America has a weight issue, and I think it is also obvious that we are beyond obsessed with the issue. However, I think that America enjoys watching people that may be, “Worse off” than themselves. This may lead to the obsession and infatuation that people have with all shows like Obsession, Hoarders, Addicted, and also the weight loss shows. One of the biggest problems with these is that the producers pick the most extreme candidates, which warps the sense of objectivity that the watchers gain. For example, on The Biggest Loser, the candidates are 300 or 400+ pounds. Now I am not arguing that these people do not need help losing weight. I just believe that when someone who is perhaps 250 lbs, and their ideal weight is 150 lbs, they may look at this show and think “Well, I am not that big so I must be okay.” This in itself is detrimental to our public. The upside to shows such as Addicted or Hoarders, is that they usually follow up with the clients and have them continue counseling for extended periods of time. They don’t just clean up their house or sober them and then leave them to their own devices. This system of continuous help would be extremely Beneficial to the people on Biggest Loser. Also, if the candidates had a long-term treatment/weight loss/healthy living plan that was aired on TV, it would take away the perspective that losing weight is an easy, 6 week fix, and may help people understand the necessity in sticking to healthy living.

  5. In regard so the dance your A** off question, I believe that these shows are to portray a more positive way to get people stimulated to exercise. I believe that this is a fun way for people to loose weight that are actually on the show. By showing that you can dance instead of overexercizing is promoting more of a fun and healthier way to lose weight. However, I dont think that the people at home watching are dancing along with the T.V., there probably sitting there with a bag of potato chips waiting to see who comes out on stage with the most rediculious costume.
    The problem with these shows is that the viewers are not getting psyically active and participating. What ever happend to the shows that incouraged people to join in like Billy Blanks Bootcamp? Actually the newest exercise that is out there is Zumba and its all about dancing. I think that if these showes were made into more of a “class enviroment” that it would encourage people, not just overweight people, that there are fun ways to loose weight and exercise.

  6. I think that tv shows have the right idea about getting people to a healthy weight, but they are more focused on the attention from viewers then actually doing whats in the best interest of their contestants. I believe the weight loss show works while the contestants are on the show. However after all is said and done, and they reach thier goal, many have gained the amount of weight back in a short amount of time. After reading this I have to agree with everyone. I believe that there is a huge crisis going on in today’s society because a large percent of the population is obese. However, the main goal should be on getting to a healthy weight, and getting healthy based upon more then just a scale because there are very skinny people out there who have high blood pressure, or cholesterol or just eat terribly in general. Getting healthy in general and learning to eat the right things along with making this a habit should be the goal. If this occured, I do not think there would be as many people regaining their weight back.

  7. What I have learned through a presentation on child obesity consists of parent education and planting the seed at home. It is alarming to know that this may be the first generation to outlive the parents due to this epidemic and crisis situation. Children need to be active and away from the front of the TV playing video Games for hours. I can’t say enough about learned ways to diet and exercise through education from Professionals such as Dr. Battisti who champions this cause.

    I’m afraid Reality shows are more for Show than the actual issue.

  8. I like the idea of Dr. Battisti’s weight loss show. I watched a show on National Georgraphic a few months back and it showed comparisons of healthy body organs and fatty body organs. That alone was a real eye opener to me. People need to see what this is doing to the inside of their bodies as well as the outside. Most people have an “out of sight out of mind” type mentality when it comes to weight problems. I know that I never thought of what foods and fat can do to the major body organs until I watched the program on Nat Geo.

  9. Q: Why are there so many television shows about losing weight? Are Americans obsessed with this issue?

    The obvious answer to this question is yes! Americans are obsessed with weight, thus the recent increase in the number of television shows and commercials on weight loss and diet pills, all of which seem to be quick fixes. My take on the issue is that as a generation, we have moved away from what the real obsession should be about, HEALTH. Health encompasses all aspect of a person’s life (emotional, psychological, physical, spiritual, social and educational); therefore this cannot be just about weight. Some people are naturally heavy, others are not. By focusing on weight (overweight or underweight) we have narrowed all efforts and are just treating the symptom of unhealthy lifestyles. Thus, this can never be antidote or a solution to the problem which besets the Nation. These weight loss programmes target the symptom. What they should incorporate into the storyline is the focus on health and more so psychological health. I think that even if you get someone to lose weight who has been overweight all of his/her life, then you is setting him/her up for failure in the long term, if you not target the other aspects of health. That individual needs to be in a state of psychological health, so he/ she will be able to embrace the lifestyle changes needed to sustain the weight, body type or figure desired. If not, in a matter of weeks, old habits will return, as evident by the number of relapse in lifestyle, which are sometimes highlighted on the Biggest Loser.
    However, these programmes have the general concept and they do inspire a small percentage of people to get off the couch and take control of their weight…I long for the day when they will inspire us all to be HEALTHY, regardless of weight.

  10. Is obesity more of a learned behavior or genetic? I currently live with a woman who has a daughter that just turned 13 this weekend. She went shopping for the party and came back with food for the house as well. The only fresh fruit or vegatables she got were 5 bananas but she did manage to get iced cinnamen rolls and pop tarts. The thing that bothers me is she had a doctors appointment this last week and mom was appalled that at age 12 she weighed 221 pounds and has a family history of type 2 diabeties. I picked up a rotisery chicken for dinner and we had potato salad, both of wich she wound up throwing away (the whole plate) and ate desert called white trash that they made at the birthday party along with the cake and ice cream. It is a chex mix covered in white chocolate. I went to bed several hours later and she was eating another full bowl of it, when I brought this to moms attention she stated “well it will be gone soon”. Mom has also had weight issues and has lost 60 pounds since may of this year using diraretics and suppositories. Moms opinion is “well she is 13 she should know better”. Just this whole history and pattern of behavior would seem to me to border on abuse, but I would be very interested in receiving feedback. By the way I am moving out of the situation as it is one of many sticking points in an already bad relationship, if only foresight was as clear as hindsight.

  11. Because the majority of the population is overweight, i think that these television shows can have a positive effect on this poplulation. When watching these shows i believe it can give motivation for those who are overweight. Some individuals believe that there is no way they could loose all the weight they have, and the majority of these weight lose tv shows are people who are extremely overweight. I agree with Dr. Battisti in the fact that he says losing weight has got to be life-long lifestyle change. Alot of these shows are airing for only a few months during their process of loosing weight, i think it would be important to have interviews or tv shows of how these individuals who did the loose are doing afterwards. I think it’s important to point out these people involved in these t.v. shows are getting constant training from personal trainers. through out the show. I think the rest of american would feel that if they had the resources such as that, they too would be able to loose weight. I also feel it would be intereseting to follow up with these individuals to find out what their emotional and mental are. Did loosing the weight help with improvement with these areas or was the weight not the initial problem that caused them to be overweight.

  12. The successful people will not let a road bump completely derail their entire lifestyle change. If you are not implementing positive lifestyle changes and losing weight, you are gaining weight. Again, there is no “in-between.”


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