Science Behind “The Biggest Loser” Diet

erik_chopin.jpgI’m hooked on “The Biggest Loser”. Maybe its because I get to watch lives being transformed and new behaviors shaped. Or maybe its because I feel gratified that these changes are a result of improvements in nutrition and exercise, areas in which I have expertise, rather than the promise of a fad diet, magic pills or surgery as a solution. But I was always so curious about what goes on behind the scenes. So you can imagine my excitement when I had the opportunity to learn from the registered dietitian and physician for the show at a recent conference.

First off, they both admitted upfront that one of the reasons the people lose so much weight consistently is because of their new environment. All the barriers that usually exist to behavior change (job/life stresses, family and friends, lack of time, lack of knowledge about what to do) have been removed. Their new job is to exercise, learn about good nutrition habits, and practice them. This is one of the keys to their success. They get enough time in the new environment that once they leave they have enough knowledge and motivation to keep it going… Essentially, they transform their lifestyle. That said, “Biggest Loser” success is within everyone’s reach. Read on to find out more!

Biggest Loser Diet

  • modified, low carbohydrate diet 45% of calories from carbohydrates (mostly fruits, vegetables and some whole grains), 30% of calories from protein, and 25% of calories from healthy fats or oils (seeds, nuts, avocado, olive oil)
  • no “white stuff”
  • whole foods, elemental ingredients
  • 4-3-2-1: daily 4 cups minimum of fruits and vegetables, 3 servings of healthy proteins (e.g. fish, skinless chicken breast, 93% lean ground turkey), 2 servings of whole grains, and 1 serving of healthy fat.
  • Aim for everyone to have 1 serving of fish daily.
  • There is room for 1 optional treat per day.
  • Cereals must have minimum 5 grams of fiber per serving and less than 5 grams of sugar per serving. This limits the cereals to certain oatmeals, bran cereals, or other high fiber cereals on the market.
  • Goal of 7 calories per pound of body weight for daily caloric intake. This is recalculated after significant weight loss.

Participants are provided with calorie counting resources and a food and exercise diary which they must maintain daily. This helps to raise awareness of past behaviors and develops an understanding for calorie balance through diet and exercise.

Their diets are analyzed daily by the show’s registered dietitian / nutritionist. The nutritionist reported a 70% adherence to the diet. The nutritionist also reported as a result of the diet contestents experience decreased risk for diabetes because the measure that is used to diagnose diabetes decreases from “at risk” to a healthy range.

Biggest Loser Exercise

  • Goal is 7 hours per week of exercise
  • Incorporate weight training, coaching, teamwork, and competition

Typical Week at the Ranch

  • Before getting started, participants undergo extensive medical tests, including a physical, stress test, DEXA (to measure accurately percent body fat and lean mass), and “Bod Pod” (to measure resting metabolic rate)
  • Participants also undergo psychological evaluation and the support network at home is briefed on the program so they know what to expect when the person returns home.
  • All participants get a full nutrition consult, including a week of food journals review. They discuss any GI symptoms they are having. They discuss eating schedules and cooking and shopping strategies.

Common Denominators

In 3 seasons, they found the contestants shared many characteristics, including:

  • no idea of the number of calories they need or what they actually consume
  • most skip breakfast and snacks and let a long time go between meals
  • most consume very little fruits and vegetables
  • most are not getting enough protein, and what they do get is high in saturated fat
  • most get very little whole grains
  • most have too much “white stuff” (sugar, refined flour)
  • little planning of meals, mostly on-the-go eating and dining out
  • most are meeting their daily caloric needs through beverages alone (e.g. caloric sodas, juices and fruit punch)
  • many consume very little water
  • nearly all reported limited to no exercise
  • nearly all prioritize everything and everyone else in their life ahead of their own health

I found the common denominators particularly insightful. It is easy to see why they are struggling with their weight when you look at behaviors they have in common. The goal of the Biggest Loser is to restructure that lifestyle and get them on the path to better health and wellness.

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Before and after photo of Erik Chopin, winner of Season 3


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41 thoughts on “Science Behind “The Biggest Loser” Diet

  1. Pingback: Realities of The Biggest Loser « Balanced Health and Nutrition

  2. Just left the room where my wife is watching the biggest loser. Contestant being weighed had lost 33 pounds in a week.
    Assuming all weight loss is fat, that’s 115 thousand calories burned in excess of those taken in, approx 687 calories / hour, assuming 24 hours a day. Not even a rider on the Tour de France burns that many calories in a week.
    Is this mostly water weight loss? Do the contestants have that much water weight to lose? I can certainly “lose” 3-4 pounds on a long run or bike ride on a warm day, but that’s not weight loss – that’s just dehydration – actual calories burned is more in the range of 800-1600.

    • During the first week the weight loss they experience is not only fat, but also water weight. That is why they don’t see high numbers during week two. After that, the numbers are consistent with someone who consumes approx 1200 calories from low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods, and they also work out for 6 – 8 hours a day. Another fact is the fatter a person is the faster they lose weight in the beginning, as they close in on their body’s normal weight, the weight loss slows down. Look at “Biggest Loser – Season 1” and compare the weight loss with the contestants of “Biggest Loser – Season 10 or 11”. The heavier the contestants the greater the weight loss will be at first.

  3. Pingback: How Could Neil Lose 33 Pounds in a Week? « Balanced Health and Nutrition

  4. Yes, that is water loss, which is significant in the early stages of carbohydrate reduction(notice the -hydrate portion of the word carbohydrate?) . While I don’t consider The Biggest Loser a low carb diet at all ( 45% of calories is not low carb, and 25% of calories is still low fat), it is still probably a significant reduction in nutritionally deficient carbs for many of these people, since they got fat from overeating carbs and very possibly undereating high quality protein and natural fats.

    Overweight, and especially very obese people carry around a significant amount of water in their tissues compared to lean or slightly overweight people. So as the metabolism switches from burning primarily carbs for energy to finally being able to burn some stored body fat for energy (because of the chronically high insulin levels produced to manage the high glucose intake, stored body fat is not allowed out of the fat cells and glucagon production is inhibited). Insulin production goes down in response to the lowered carbohydrate portion of the meals, so the excess water is shed. That’s ok. In a few weeks, the excess retained water from the previously high carb intake is gone, and fat burning begins in earnest with higher glucagon production/lower insulin levels, even though the scale may not reflect the same numbers as in the first few weeks.

    This is basic biochemistry found in any college level textbook, but it seems to be ignored for a variety of reasons.

  5. First of all, the week BEFORE Neil lost the 33 pounds he drank SO much water that he gained 17 pounds (the show EVERYONE was so shocked!)…so the next week when they weighed in and it read 33 pounds he really only lost 16 pounds.

  6. Pingback: Biggest Loser Couples Episode 3 - What’s With the Big Numbers? « Balanced Health and Nutrition

  7. I am so proud that you were able to do it, congradulations. I am wondering about one thing, did you have to have excess skin removed? I am undergoing the gastric bi pass and am wondering if it is posible that i could do with out extra plastic surgy. again congradulation. Tracy

  8. Pingback: Liveblogging Biggest Loser Couples Finale « Balanced Health and Nutrition Rebecca Scritchfield’s Blog

  9. Pingback: What have you done for yourself today? « Iowa Ave

  10. If we love our children, it’ s up to us to encourage them to eat wholesome foods and stop eating the food that’ s bad for them. Every week, introduce a new healthy food. Over time they will come to love the healthy foods. Reward your children for eating all of their vegetables and fruits, and eliminate the unhealthy foods from your household. Raise your healthy children into healthy adults. Stop childhood obesity.

  11. Dear All,

    I have had gastric bypass and have maintained my 128 lb wt. loss. However, my question is how do you know or how do I understand what I should be eating now? I mean, I can eat anything I want and I still get full easily….but is their a certain diet that I need to remain on for the rest of my life? I told myself that my first 50 years I didn’t take care of my life and the last fifity I want to become consious of what I eat and drink. No alcohol in my life and moderate exercise each day. Walking is my get-a-way from the house. Just need to hear the answers from someone that knows the truth as to what I need to maintain my loss.

    Thank you,
    Tana Mallard

  12. Tana,

    I recommend you seek a registered dietitian who has experience in working with post-bariatric patients. You can search for a dietitian in your area at One or two visits with an RD should help you feel more comfortable and confident in what you need to do for your long-term weight loss.

    You certainly want to follow a healthy, well-balanced diet and not eat “anything” just because you can. You want the little food can consume to be high quality and nutritious.

    I spent a week working in a bariatric clinic and I can tell you what I remember from that short experience. We taught patients that the end goal is fruits, vegetables, lean meat (or non-animal protein), no to limited concentrated sweets. If you had Roux-n-y you need to keep taking your vitamin supplements, digestive enzymes as needed, and you may need to continue the protein supplement as well.

    Best of luck to you… let me know how your visit with the RD goes.

  13. Pingback: “Positively” Essential - A New Book About Aging Healthfully « Balanced Health and Nutrition Rebecca Scritchfield’s Blog

  14. Im not sure its for everyone. I think sometimes just proper nutrition can get us where we want to go, albight a slow process its probably easier in the long run.

  15. Nutrition good or bad is the most important factor in our body composition. Sure underlying medical conditions can be attributed to obesity as well, for intance thyroid malfunction and others. But, if you can keep a clean diet plan and incorporate portion control into your daily eating habits you can lose weight. That doen’t mean you have to cut out all your favorite foods, it means, cut your usual serving down by 1/4, than 1/2 and so forth.

  16. Hi all,

    I’m currently researching various weight loss programs and courses.

    So, if you don’t mind please answer in this topic: What’s your single most important question about weight loss?

    Cheers, JD

  17. Pingback: Anyone watch The Biggest Loser? - Atkins Diet

  18. Hello Rebecca,

    Last week this TV show started here in the Netherlands too. This program is awesome. Not only losing weight by looking out what you eat, but also to change a complete way off life.
    I’m convinced that these people build something that they will never give up anymore.

  19. there one thing that is puzzling me, how is it with such a massive amount of weight loss in such a small amount of time that the contestants do not have much/any loose skin?

    what’s the secret?

  20. The total length of time is about six months, even though we watch it over a three month time period. I also think the exercise is a major factor. These people are building lean muscle and losing fat – not just losing fat.

    Bariatric patients usually have lose skin because they can lose weight without exercise and they lose a lot of weight rapidly and then it tapers off.

    Other comments welcome!


  21. Pingback: Big Tips from a “Big Loser” « Balanced Health and Nutrition Rebecca Scritchfield’s Blog

  22. Pingback: Tune In to Biggest Loser and Look for Bernie « Balanced Health and Nutrition Rebecca Scritchfield’s Blog

  23. Pingback: Biggest Losers Hit “The Hill” in D.C. | Nurture Principles

  24. I’m happy to have read this since I watch the show on a regular basis. I am still a fan but have to admit, the product placements in the show are quite annoying. They are so abrasive I wonder why they just can’t eliminate the commercials.

  25. I’m sorry Rebecca, but you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about regarding saturated fat. I suggest you look into Anthony Colpo.

  26. I am an avid Biggest Loser fan. However, last night while watching I noticed several contestants spoke about “achieving their burn”
    What does that mean?

  27. In some areas I would have to agree. They are lost have no idea how much they should be eating or how much exercise and when or where. But, they have to take responsibility for themselves. If you notice your pants don’t fit and your 25-30 years old you know that you’re not out growing them they way you did when you where 13,14,15 years old. You have to notice that it’s not the inseam but the waist that’s growing. Come on! The problem with a lot of our society is they fail to take responsibility for their own lives. I see this every day when someone e-mail or calls and is looking for instruction on how to lose weight. The majority that have called or e-mailed have decided something needs to be done. But when I question them as to what they done in the past I get “WELL!”or I tried this diet or that and lost some and then regained, plus. Most look for a micro wave fix. I do not believe the Biggest Loses is good and what I see are people losing an abnormal amount of weight in an abnormal amount of time living in an abnormal life style. Don’t get me wrong I thinks it’s great they lost weight but realistically in life you can’t do it, it took time to gain the weight and it’s going to take time to lose it and gain new healthy habits.
    Chris Martin
    Health and Weight Loss counselor
    Life is Marathon not a 100 yard sprint, enjoy the day.

  28. The biggest loser is a great show and losing weight can be hard. But I think people tend to over complicate the issue. Basically it’s calories in vs. calories out, exercise and consistancy. If you don’t over eat, you exercise regularly and you STAY CONSISTENT then you will lose weight. Always remember, it took time for you to put on the weight, so it’s going to take time to get the weight off.

  29. Can anyone help? I have read the Biggest Loser Cookbook and understand the basics of the diet, but it says that no matter how many calories you consume you must eat at least 24 ounces of protein a day! Well I can get that, but if you count the calories for 24 ounces of say Chicken then that’s over 930 calories alone! Then you when you work out your 7 calories per pound for someone who is say 14 stone then that only leaves 442 cals for everything else! Am I getting this right?

  30. Pingback: Why we can’t all be Biggest Losers « Vital Choice Healthstore Blog & Podcast

  31. Everyone argues over health and weight and exercise and calories and types of calories etc.

    What I think is that specifics do not matter. There are rules to follow and if you follow them you will be healthier than you are not following them. And if they aren’t working for you then all you have to do is adjust them.

    I have lost 70 pounds so far this year after reaching my max weight of 400. How I have I lost this weight easily and with no hunger when I reached that weight in the first place and have never been able to shed it before??

    The simple answer is I discovered some rules that work for me.
    *I try my hardest to limit refined carbs. I literally don’t eat them unless I have no choice.
    *I allow myself treats. Ice cream is my favorite.
    *I eat nothing larger than 2 cups in any sitting. Portion control!
    *If I eat a treat or otherwise mess up I don’t let it depress me to the point of falling off my health plan for weeks or months at a time. I immediately strive to be healthy the next time and the next time.
    *variety in foods matters.
    *I do not eat 2 of most kinds of food at any meal. No reason to eat steak wrapped in bacon. Peaches and pears. Melted cheese and sour cream. Pasta and bread.
    *that being said I do often eat 2-4 servings of vegetables and beans
    *I avoid bad fats if at all possible.
    *I eat the healthy fats found in certain dairy, fish, avocados, nuts, healthy oils.
    *I set aside 9 hours for sleep every day and I go to sleep on a strict schedule. These days I feel so much better that I often only sleep 5-7 hours.
    *I eat every 3-4 hours on a set schedule even if I’m not hungry.
    *If I happen to be what I feel is inappropriately hungry I go ahead and eat but something small.
    *I try to be cognizant of all the calories I’m eating and make sure they balance out. If I mess up for breakfast and eat a lot of bacon I eat salad for lunch. If I’m over at a friend’s house and we eat kettle corn all day long then I stick to a more basic diet the next day.
    *Some of my rules are the same as the Biggest loser. I try to have a form of seafood every day. Even if it’s just a few shrimp or a small can of tuna or baring that my fish oil supplement.
    *I make sure to drink 2 glasses of water a day regardless of anything.
    *I feel much better avoiding all artificial sweeteners except that I do use a reduced amount of Splenda.

    All this being said as basic rules. I have tons of other ones that may not work for other people but that do work for me or that are variations on these. They make me feel good and healthy and lose weight. If I happen to feel bad, hungry or health progress has stalled then I’m doing something wrong and adjust accordingly. Eating this way with guidelines not with percentages or strict calorie counts has made a huge difference to me. And you can see that depending on what my body actually is asking for. I might exercise a lot or a little. Eat 2000 calories or 1500. Have lots of carbs or none. Lots of fats or none. 9 hours of sleep or 5. I’ve also set up rules for my personality governing such things as how to deal with fast food etc.

    Get to know your body and personality!! You’ll be healthier and happier for it!

  32. Pingback: Biggest Loser RD Cheryl Forberg on Enjoying Avocados from Mexico « Balanced Health and Nutrition Rebecca Scritchfield, RD

  33. About a year ago I counted calories only calories and fat grams nothing else and lose 30 pounds got off track for about 7 months and just started over. I didn’t gain but 5 pounds back. But for some reason or other this time seems a bit harder to do. But i’m going to keep fightng I weight 216 pounds and would like to be 170. If there is any suggestions out there I would really like it.

  34. I think that the emphasis on quick weight loss is unhealthy and a bad example.

    1-2 lbs a week has the best likelihood of keeping it off.

    I know that it’s a tv show and they don’t have 3 years for these folks to lose the weight, but they should make this point known to the viewers at least.

  35. I have shared this blog with SO many people! I have printed it out and shared it with the ladies in my weight loss class. I have linked it onto my FB page and I am now sharing it on my blog.
    So many people here are going on about quick weight loss, and the biggest loser is misrepresenting life.
    It is a show, but it’s a show that inspires. It gets people thinking and moving and TRYING!
    I know that I can’t do 7 hours a week of cardio and then throw in weight training, coaching, some form of crazy competitions that can take hours. But I know that hey, I can eat 7 calories per my pounds. I can get 5 hours a week of cardio in.
    At the end of the day, what I have learned, is that you make the changes you can live with. And one pound here, two pounds there, and maybe 5 or 6 one week will get you closer to your goal. Keep your eyes on the prize and continue to make changes YOU CAN LIVE WITH!
    Thank you for posting this article! It has truely affected me in such a positive way!

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