When the original NBC run of “The Biggest Loser” came to an end in 2016 after 17 seasons, it did so with an air of controversy around it due to claims about unhealthy weight loss methods on the show. Entering into its 18th season, now on USA, the format was tweaked for the 2020 audience.
The biggest change, former trainer and now host Bob Harper called out at the Television Critics Assn. press tour panel for the show Saturday, is that who gets sent home every week is no longer “a popularity contest.” While the original series asked the team that lost the least amount of weight each week to discuss and decide which singular person would go home, now that discussion has been eliminated. Instead, the person with the lowest percentage of weight loss for the week automatically goes home.
But what that means is that contestants may feel more pressure to work out harder, eat less, and cut other corners to drop the most amount of pounds the fastest, simply to stay in the game. There is a cash prize at the end of the season for the one who stays on the ranch the longest and loses the most amount of weight, after all.
“We did want to make a better connection or a bigger connection between weight loss and health,” said Heather Olander, senior vice president, alternative series development and production. “Being thin is great, and fitting into skinny jeans, if that’s what you want, but that’s not the end-all-be-all.”
So how did the new version of the show combat concerns that contestants — many of whom admitted they didn’t know much about diet or exercise when walking into production — or trainers, who want to see their team members win, didn’t take things to the extreme?
New trainer Steve Cook said that each contestant “had to hit a certain amount of calories” every day, and that was monitored. Behind-the-scenes contestants worked with nutritionists to receive individualized meal plans. Additionally, there were two doctors on the series who would go over bloodwork and each person’s specific diet for the week. Cook added that their “training goal with the athletic staff” was monitored and if someone was injured, they would adjust to a new training regimen to compensate for whatever was wrong with them.
“Weight loss is controversial,” Harper admitted. “Losing weight is the easiest part. It’s keeping it off. You have to divorce yourself of everything you did in your past that got you to that place.”
The new season, Harper continued, is out to approach a healthier lifestyle from “every level,” which greatly includes the mental blocks. He leads a support group during the show where contestants can talk about their emotions and struggles.
“We give them an outlet to get what’s going on in their head out into the real world, seek solace, feel a little bit better about themselves because it is a struggle,” he said, noting that there were licensed psychiatrists behind-the-scenes during production, as well.
Harper also acknowledged that people who are obsese are not so because they simply “like pizza. It’s what that food represents. It’s the medication they feel they get from it,” he said.
Added Cook: “This really being about self love. At the end of the day, if you don’t have that, you might lose weight, but what’s going to happen when you go home? This is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Those contestants who were sent home early and had to go back to their regular lives of work and raising a family and therefore didn’t have all day to spend working out, Olander said, received a more “enhanced” after-care package than in the past. This included a gym membership, as well as access to a nutritionist.
“It’s not about a short-term diet to get thin. It’s about getting healthy and whatever that means for you,” she said. “What’s right for one person may not be right for someone else, but what we wanted to maintain was inspirational.”
Addressing concerns that past contestants experienced more problems, such as slowed-down metabolism, after they dropped a large amount of weight quickly on the show, Harper admitted, “your body wants to go back to how it’s been for a very long time, and that’s almost like swimming upstream for a lot of people.”
But one thing he did not want to do was call anyone fat. “I never really use that word. It’s always about the weight issues. It’s one of those things — being gay, I can say the f-word, but if you say it I’m going to have a problem with you. I don’t have a weight problem, so I don’t think I should be throwing that word around loosely,” he said.
“The Biggest Loser” premieres Jan. 28 on USA.