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6 Things I Learned From My Work With NBC’s The Biggest Loser

May 10, 2015

I was granted exclusive access to interview former contestants of NBC’s The Biggest Loser as part of a landmark research study exploring the psychology of drastic weight loss.

The study was noteworthy both for the participants it included–this was the first time NBC agreed to allow former contestants to participate in academic research—and because the research looked to explain what happens to people’s minds and relationships as they lost weight, and what separated those successful at keeping the weight off long term from those who struggled.

That research with NBC’s The Biggest Loser ended up launching my career. Today I practice as a licensed therapist specializing in issues related to obesity and weight loss.

When I am not in session, I am often visiting local weight loss centers, gyms, and campuses talking about the theory of drastic weight loss that emerged from that Biggest Loser study.

Of course, not all of my conversations about my research with the show participants unfold professionally. Many friends, acquaintances, and fans of the show are curious about what I learned and what stood out in those interviews.

Nearly everyone has the same question: “Did they manage to keep the weight off?”

You can read more in depth about what I learned in my Biggest Loser series where I talk about the 8 Stages of Drastic Weight Loss.

But here’s a quick primer of the six things I learned while working with former contestants of NBC’s The Biggest Loser.

1. Flip a coin to see who will keep the weight off.

First, let’s answer everyone’s most pressing question. According to the contestants I interviewed back in 2009, about 50% of the people on the television show keep the weight off, while the other 50% gain it back. So essentially, it was a coin flip. These odds are actually quite good considering that 95% of people who lose weight gain it back within 5 years or less.

I’d also venture to guess that those odds of gaining the weight back has only increased with each year that passes for former Biggest Loser contestants. That 95% regain rate stat suggests that time is often the biggest threat to weight maintenance, and it’s been 6 years since I conducted those interviews with contestants for the research study.

In my research with The Biggest Loser, I was most interested in better understanding what the people who kept the weight off were doing differently from the people who gained it back.

Why were some people successful at keeping off the wait long-term while others struggled? What were they doing differently? How did they navigate common roadblocks during their weight loss journey?

Answering those questions became the basis for my theory of drastic weight loss and the entire purpose behind creating DrMondo.org, so together, as a community we could learn these weight loss journey secrets in route to achieving our long-term health goals together.

2. Your reason (Your “Why”) for losing weight is the biggest predictor of how successful you will be at losing the weight AND keeping it off.

This one sounds rather simple, but it can’t be overstated. Sure, everyone wants to lose weight to look and feel better. But contestants of The Biggest Loser who set out to lose weight for reasons beyond vanity had great weight loss success. More importantly, they were also more successful at maintaining their weight-loss years later.

These Biggest Loser contestants talked about their weight loss journey differently. They focused very little on seeing a certain number on the scale, fitting into smaller clothing, or weight loss being the catalyst for a thriving dating life.

Instead they talked about losing weight as a means to an end in achieving a much bigger goal. These Biggest Loser contestants’ Why was to be healthier so that they could be around longer for their family. It was to finally learn how to practice better self-care and make themselves a priority in their hectic lives. For these contestants weight loss was a smaller part of a larger life-changing process that centered around finding love and respect for their self.

These contestants with strong Why’s were the ones that were successful at maintaining their weight-loss long-term.

When these Biggest Loser contestants hit the difficult parts of their weight loss journey, they were more likely to keep forging ahead, while others with a more shallow Why seemed more susceptible to giving up or giving in to their old patterns of behavior.

3. After weight loss, there’s a crossroad in relationships. Family and friends will either accept or resist your change in body weight, and more people will resist than you think.

Every single contestant of The Biggest Loser I spoke with shared incredibly gripping stories of resistance, rejection, and even outright sabotage from various friends and family after losing weight. Mostly this resistance showed up in surprised and shocked reactions to contestants’ weight loss. “How much more weight are you going to lose? You’re wasting away!”

Other Biggest Loser contestants received resistance in the form of passive aggressive commentary: “Now that you lost the weight, I suppose you’ll get new friends too.”

Some friends and family were downright cold-hearted about their resistance to the contestants’ drastic weight loss. “What are we going to feed her next to fatten her back up?” one participant’s friend said upon her return from the Biggest Loser Ranch.

From unsupportive spouses, best friends, coworkers, and family members, all Biggest Loser contestants experienced some level of resistance from their inner circle to their weight loss transformation.

Yes, there were also many supportive friends and family. In some cases, contestants were even lucky enough to come home to spouses and family members who were inspired to lose weight too. Of course that kind of support was a huge asset to keeping the weight off.

Yet, even those who experienced this level of support also experienced resistance from other key family or friends. In that way, no one was immune to resistance.

Interestingly enough, the amount of resistance in a contestant’s support system did not predict their long-term success in keeping the weight off.

A contestant’s response to the resistance is what predicted long-term success at keeping the weight off. It goes back to their initial Why.

Those contestants with strong Whys were more determined to work through that resistance and renegotiate those unsupportive relationships. Not even sabotage from their loved ones could keep them from their mission of living a happier and healthier life.

4. Everyone tricks themselves into thinking weight loss will fix everything in their life, and it never does.

If you’re familiar with my blog, you know how often I talk about the danger of holding our self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-love hostage to the number on the scale. It’s difficult to resist saying to ourselves, “I’ll really start living life once I lose the weight,” or “Once I get this weight off, everything will be different.”

The reality is that shedding pounds and learning how to love yourself are two entirely different processes. They both take a lot of work and attention, but if you are determined to achieve them, you can and you will.

The Biggest Loser contestants who actually saw these changes in self-esteem, self-worth and confidence unfold made a decision early on in their weight loss journey to approach weight loss as an act of self-love.

Better yet, self-love was the goal, and weight loss was simply one aspect of that. These contestants didn’t wait for their goal weight to show up on the scale to start talking to themselves with more love and respect and less shame.

They were intentional about healing these old wounds from living life overweight in a weight shaming society. They got serious about putting the work in the gym and equally in moments of self-exploration with other supports—including therapists. These Biggest Loser contestants understood that weight loss wouldn’t unlock a new life, they’d need to focus on making these changes parallel to their weight loss journey.

Contestants who figured this out early on had more success losing weight and keeping it off.

5. Healing the past matters! There’s a deeper reason you love food.

As a therapist, one thing that shocked me was just how much self-reflection all contestants did throughout their weight loss journey. There’s no doubt that weight loss is an incredibly emotional process.

At the end of their weight loss transformation, nearly all contestants were able to articulate not just how they had used food in destructive ways, but more importantly why they used food in those ways.

Contestants talked about food being a comforter during ruts of depression and loneliness, a temporary escape from a hostile relationship, or something to numb out from all emotion on a stressful day.

It seemed nearly all Biggest Loser contestants were able to recognize they didn’t just love food, they also were using food to meet other emotional needs.

Yet, contestants who not only learned these insights, but also took it a step further and actively attempted to do some healing around these issues ended up having better success maintaining their weight loss.

One contestant determined that he escaped to food when he needed protection from fear of failure.

Healing that wound meant having a difficult conversation with his father where he expressed the origins of that fear.

For others it meant meeting with a counselor to explore trigger emotions that started binge eating cycles or a series of missed trips to the gym.

This self-awareness helped successful former contestants grow and evolve on their journey. That was an impact that stretched far beyond just weight loss!

6. Your support system and community are vital to your long-term success.

It was common for many Biggest Loser contestants to develop a fraternal bond over time to one another. While at the ranch, contestants were disconnected from all their close family and friends. During this time, they leaned heavily on each other for emotional support during critical moments in their weight loss journeys.

In many ways, there was no one better suited to support them in that journey than other people who were also going through the same weight loss transformation. They spoke the same language.

When contestants left the ranch, they had to go out of their way to ensure that the connection to their Biggest Loser family survived.

Contestants who were intentional about staying connected to their new support system were far more likely to be successful in keeping the weight off. More than that, they were also more likely to continue their emotional growth process.

Being connected to The Biggest Loser family provided several benefits. First, it of course helped keep former contestants accountable. It was hard to hide backsliding the more intimately involved they were with the Biggest Loser family. If one contestant fell out of the loop, started isolating and disappearing, another member would stop by their house to do a welfare check to make sure they were okay. If one member was alone during holidays they would receive an influx of invitations to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with their family.

In this way, the show family gave contestants a ton of validation for all the exciting and terrifying changes that they were experiencing post-weight loss. That helped contestants not feel alone in their struggles. Third, it provided knowledge of what to expect on the road ahead.

Finally, it gave contestants a chance to have mentors and mentor others. Everyone in the show family was at different points in their weight loss journey. Some people were just days in while others were years in.

For those further down the road, giving advice and perspective to a newbie helped remind them of what was most important to their success, helped them stay accountable to their journey, and helped cement their new identity as a weight loss maintainer. For those fresh into maintenance, it gave them a sense of what to expect and how to prepare for it.

To learn more about Dr. Mondo’s exclusive research with The Biggest Loser check out The Biggest Loser Before and After and the upcoming 9 Stages of Drastic Weight Loss.