My sad prediction for today’s “biggest losers”

My blog seems to be on something of a health kick lately. This is because over the last year I have been dealing with more than my usual number of health issues. It’s not just me. This week, my mother in law complained of chest pains. Doctors found a blockage near her heart and put in an emergency stint. She then suffered a heart attack that was followed a day later by another and worse heart attack. She was technically dead for ten minutes until they finally managed to restart her heart. She is still in intensive care and is delusional, a condition I saw my own mother go through since she also suffered from congestive heart failure. Her long-term prospects look dubious, but she is about eighty years old. She is fortunate to be alive in any condition, because she made lifetime habits of smoking and not exercising. My wife plans to fly out to Phoenix tomorrow to be with her mother. Her return date is unknown. If all this close-to-home health news were not enough, one of my sisters called me today to tell me that she has been diagnosed with the onset of adult diabetes.

So feeling my mortality, I am focused on healthy living, as are many other people including First Lady Michele Obama. Obama is busy planting a vegetable garden on the White House lawn, demonstrating healthy eating and fitness, and working to end childhood obesity. This is long overdue but of course, this being America, there is fierce resistance. The processed food industry is all up in arm about taxing nutritionally empty foods like soda that give us sugar highs and put us prematurely into the hospital. I heard one C-SPAN caller the other morning (a self professed Tea Party member) dreadfully upset that “big government” was trying to regulate sodium in our food and was thinking about raising taxes on nutritionally empty foods like sugared sodas. To me these are “better late than never” proposals, but it makes other American hopping mad. I wonder if they also object to nutritional information on packaged food. Apparently, it is more important to be nutritionally ignorant and cause millions to die prematurely and deal with wholly preventable diseases than it is to increase the size of government. You have to wonder if the nutritionally empty crap these people are likely eating is affecting their judgment.

I avoid “reality” TV shows but about a year ago, while stuck in a hotel room, I watched an entire episode of The Biggest Losers, which now has many international spinoffs. As with most of these “reality” shows, it seems to be much more about fostering unhealthy relationships between fellow contestants than losing weight. The more weight your team loses, the “better” you are doing. The grand prize of $250,000 would certainly be nice to win, but at what price? In any event, in addition to the constant sniping you can watch contestants downing protein shakes, dehydrating themselves, working with personal trainers and engaging in the vigorous cardiovascular exercise they ignored most of their lives.

If you are obese, losing weight is usually vital for your long-term health. If you are overweight, it is also a good idea. Still, losing twenty, 40, 80 and in some cases more than 100 pounds is not by itself healthy. First, if the calories you are ingesting are not nutritious, you are not being good to your body. Second, as I discovered, dehydration can result in syncopes (fainting spells), falls, concussions and even death. No wonder Biggest Loser contestants in case they should they end up in the hospital or drop dead sign forms disclaiming NBC from all responsibility. Perhaps the most likely thing that will happen when you lose weight is that soon after the cameras are tracking your progress, you will quickly rebound, putting back the weight you gained and often more, such as happened to actress Kirstie Alley. Arguably, if you were just going to gain it back, you might have been better off not dieting in the first place.

Granted I only watched one episode, but what I saw on The Biggest Losers appalled me. Not only does the extreme competition glorify sniping at fellow team members (hardly the sort of harmonious living the Dalai Lama would encourage) but extremely rapid dieting almost guarantees that you will gain back the weight. A real competition for The Biggest Losers would not emphasize how much weight contestants lost per week, but track the contestants on how long they maintained a healthy weight, ate sensibly and followed a moderate exercise regime. The show should reward those who took off lots of weight in a sensible manner: by taking off a pound a week. They should reward those who have also successfully kept the weight off. This, of course, would make for very uninteresting television, but seeing how others did it would be very instructive to the sixty percent of us either overweight or obese.

How do people manage to lose and keep the weight off? My last post is perhaps instructive, but my method is but one of many. Methods that work will be tailored to the personality of the person and work with their eating and exercise preferences. Like alcoholism, I see obesity as a lifelong disease. I will forever be at risk of being overweight and obese. It is only through incorporating effective eating and exercise strategies into my life in a natural way that I will succeed in my real goal: being at a normal weight and remaining at a normal weight. Of course, I want all this, plus I want to be fit, to have a healthy heart, get optimal nutrition and never have to worry about high blood pressure or high cholesterol. I want to pass away gently in my sleep sometime in my nineties. I’ve kind of figured out this means I won’t be eating many French fries or getting double cones at Baskin Robbins.

In sum up, The Biggest Losers contestants are almost predestined to be tomorrow’s biggest gainers, an inconvenient fact that the producers will not bother to highlight. What we need is much more clinical research into the best techniques for losing and maintaining a healthy weight. In addition, we need research on staying optimally healthy while spending our working days in office buildings typing on keyboards.

I would like to see billboards highlighting people who have taken off significant amounts of weight and have successfully maintained a healthy weight for five, ten or more years. These billboards should come with URLs to websites so people can learn more about how they did it. Like Miss America contestants, these real Biggest Losers should tour American classrooms and give public lectures spreading their gospel. Maybe this way, along with reducing sodium, calorie and fat content in our foods and restaurants and encouraging fitness both at home and work, Americans will revert to being fit and healthy again.

I would not waste your time looking for useful tips on how you can weather our obesity crisis by watching The Biggest Losers. Instead, you might want to make an appointment with your physician.

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