Kids on 'The Biggest Loser': Is It Exploitation?

Is it appropriate for the show to feature children?

(Photo: amyericjohnson/Creative Commons via Flickr)

Jan 8, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Lorie A. Parch is a Los Angeles-based writer specializing in health and lifestyle topics.

One of the most popular shows on TV, The Biggest Loser, debuted its 14th season on January 6 featuring new kinds of contestants: children. The show, which airs on NBC, introduced its audience to 13-year-old Biingo of New Windsor, Maryland; 16-year-old Sunny of Rochester, New York; and 13-year-old Lindsay of Fillmore, California. This is the first time the show has featured non-adult contestants.

The show’s creators and trainers—who include a returning Jillian Michaels, as well as Bob Harper, and Dolvett Quince, along with a nutritionist, physician, and an athletic trainer—say they added the three teen contestants with an eye toward bringing awareness to the crisis of childhood obesity, and doing something to end it.

This season one teen will be part of each of the three adult teams. But the kids won’t be treated the same as the adult contestants. They are not eligible for elimination, and though they will compete in fitness challenges, theirs will be different from those of the adult contestants. The kids’ challenges and training, says the show, will focus on fun activities (the season opener featured bungee cords and a colorful ball pit), to help them find physical activity more enjoyable, rather than stressing weight loss and calorie-counting. They will also learn about making healthier eating choices.

Treating the adults and teens differently is essential, agrees Dr. Michael Goran, a professor of preventive medicine, physiology and biophysics and Pediatrics, Keck School of Medicine, and director of the Childhood Obesity Research Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “In general I would think it would be very difficult to lump together the issues and needs of overweight children or teens with obese adults,” he says. “I think that the drastic and intense changes promoted by the show for adults would be irrelevant and in fact potentially harmful for teens, especially the younger 13-year-olds who have to lose weight as well as continue to grow healthily.” He adds that it might be a good idea to devote a season of the show, or a separate show, to the specific needs and issues of overweight and obese children.

Tom Holland, author of Beat the Gym and an exercise physiologist who's long worked with children and teens, sees another problem. "Most fitness experts would agree that the most important component of weight management is proper eating and healthy food choices," says Holland. "As 13-year olds and even 16-year olds do not purchase the majority of food they consume, the true problem lies not with their individual choices, habits and lack of exercise, but rather with what the parents are feeding them."

Any intervention, says Holland, should focus on parents, not kids: "The food they have in the house, what they eat themselves, and feed their children, and their exercise habits. They are the role models for their children," he adds. "If the food is not in the house, the kids can't eat it—pure and simple. It's not their fault they are overweight. It's a lack of proper guidance."

Like Dr. Goran, Holland also stresses that fitness programs for adolescents and teenagers need to be designed age-appropriately. "Their bodies are still growing and they cannot be trained the same way as a mature adult," he says. In specific, Holland points to recent research showing that while children and teens benefit from strength training, any exercise program should use body weight (versus free weights or weight machines), basic movements, light resistance, and progress extremely gradually.

"The focus should be on skill acquisition and proper form," says Holland, who adds that with teenagers the emotional component is critical. "Extreme care must be taken to focus on increasing confidence and self-efficacy through small goal attainment and positive reinforcement," he notes. "One negative experience can affect their attitudes towards fitness for years to come."

Do you think it's a good idea for teenagers to be on the show? Let us know in the comments.