Business of Well-being

The Biggest Losers Might be Your Employees

Much earlier in my health promotion career, I helped an employer create a "biggest loser" style weight-loss contest at work. Back then, I didn't know nearly as much as I do now about the complexities of body weight, how ineffective weight loss programs are and the dangers of a weight-focused approach to health.

Even without that empirical knowledge, I felt uneasy about my role in that program, and about all of the similar weight loss contests going on in the corporate wellness industry. Rewarding participants for losing the most weight in a certain period of time seemed wrong, as did the unsustainable strategies that people needed to use to shed pounds quickly, such as meticulously logging food, eating only low-calorie or low-fat food, and exercising rigidly.

As a result, contestants could be overheard categorizing their days - and themselves - as "good" or "bad" based on what and how much they ate. Although "The Biggest Loser" television show is incredibly popular with viewers, I think it is perhaps one of the most damaging shows ever broadcast.

It perpetuates harmful myths about body weight, weight loss, exercise and health - and it does so with punishing exercise regimens, shaming, untelevised extreme deprivation, and even according to one contestant, misrepresentation of time.

While many in the health promotion industry understand that "The Biggest Loser" is unrealistic, it is important to consider the damaging effects of the biggest loser weight loss contests at work too - even when they're called "The Biggest Winner!"

Why Weight Loss Contests in the Workplace are a Bad Idea

There are more reasons than I have for space for, but here are a few of my top picks. Weight loss contests are based on flawed assumptions. Particularly in workplace wellness initiatives, there are two predominant assumptions about body weight that are so ingrained that only a small (but growing) number of people even question them. The flawed assumptions are:

  1. In order to be optimally healthy, anyone with a body weight or BMI above the "ideal" range should lose weight.
  2. Anyone who is determined enough can lose weight and keep it off simply by eating less and exercising more.

The evidence does not support these conclusions; learn more from our white paper, Mindful Eating in the Workplace: Shifting the Focus from Weight to Well-being.

Weight Loss Contests Encourage Unsustainable Behavior

Restrictive eating, even when it's positioned as the type of "healthy eating" that's really just diet-thinking in disguise, leads to psychological and physiological consequences that make it virtually impossible to maintain for the long term.

Among others, these consequences include preoccupation with food, disordered eating, diminishing psychological well-being and eventual compensatory overeating. When exercise is prescribed in rigid terms and positioned primarily as a mathematical necessity for sustained weight loss, individuals are much less likely to develop the positive feelings and self-efficacy necessary for enjoying and sustaining regular physical activity.

Because restrictive eating and rigid exercise regimens require an unsustainable amount of time, energy and willpower, they are a set up for eventual "failure". This leads to the third problem.

Weight Loss Contests Perpetuate the "Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle"

When you begin with mistaken ideas about weight, then add restrictive, unsustainable behaviors, instead of improved health, you get the Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle and the potential harm that goes along with it.

For many, this cycle includes weight cycling (repeated weight gain and weight loss), which is physically and emotionally harmful and counterproductive to well-being. The Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle also fosters, or can be a symptom of, disordered eating.

This ranges from common problematic eating behaviors like chronic overeating and/or feeling out of control around food to a full-blown eating disorder.

Weight Loss Contests Foster Weight Bias and Weight Stigma

"The Biggest Loser" and workplace contests that are modeled after the show are not only ineffective and potentially harmful to the individuals participating in them, they are part of a cultural problem in our society regarding how people larger than the "ideal" size are viewed and treated.

The Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA) describes weight bias as negative attitudes and beliefs about people who do not fit a certain weight category, which fuels harmful actions by others such as social rejection, bullying, and inappropriate treatment from medical and health professionals.

Weight bias is fostered by certain erroneous beliefs about larger-bodied people, such as that they are lazy, lacking in self-discipline or willpower - or that all people have the ability to become and remain thin. These ideas run counter to the existing science on weight and weight loss, which indicates that weight management is significantly more complex than the current "eat less, exercise more" model would suggest, and that it's determined by myriad variables, some of which are beyond an individual's control.

When a person perceives the weight bias they're encountering as deserved, they're likely to experience weight stigma, which may include feelings of shame, anxiety, depression or self-hatred. While both weight bias and weight stigma are harmful to society in general, workplace wellness professionals should be aware that they are clearly counterproductive to the workplace wellness program organizers' and participants' mutual goals of improved health, productivity, and quality of life.

Please! No More Biggest Loser Weight Loss Contests!

There is an alternative to this detrimental weight focus and all of the initiatives it has spawned. Many health professionals are part of a growing movement away from restrictive, weight-focused strategies, and toward a non-diet, mindfulness-based, weight-neutral approach to health.

Each of these three key tenets offer value that, when combined, create a comprehensive, inspiring, sustainable way to eat healthfully, value our bodies, and live our best lives. Read our complimentary white paper and let us know what you think!

About the Author

Rebecca Johnson is the Director of Workplace Wellness for Am I Hungry? It's an innovative mindful eating program that empowers individuals to take charge of their decisions about eating, physical activity, health and self-care so they can invest fully in their lives and work.

Learn about how you can become a Certified Corporate Wellness Specialist→