Many years ago, early in my health promotion career, I helped an employer create a “biggest loser” style weight loss contest at work.
I really regret that now!
But I have to forgive myself. Back then, I didn’t know nearly as much as I do now about the complexities of body weight. We know now that restrictive weight loss programs are ineffective at best, and at worst, downright detrimental.
Even without the empirical knowledge we have now, I still felt uneasy about my role in that weight loss program and about similar weight loss contests going on everywhere in the corporate wellness industry.
Set up to fail.
Rewarding participants for losing the most weight in a certain period of time seemed wrong, Not only that, but the unsustainable strategies that people needed to use to shed pounds quickly—meticulously logging food, eating only low-calorie, low-fat, or low-carb food, exercising rigidly and aggressively—are simply not sustainable practices.
As a result, contestants are overheard categorizing their days—and themselves—as “good” or “bad” based on what and how much they ate.
An outdated approach that won’t go away
“The Biggest Loser” was an incredibly popular but highly controversial TV show. It’s coming back this year for another reboot because apparently, people love to watch the spectacle of others practically killing themselves to lose weight.
At this point, I don’t know if anyone actually believes the contestants are becoming healthier. The fact that millions may again tune in, in my opinion, makes The Biggest Loser one of the most damaging and dangerous shows people can watch. It depicts punishing exercise regimens, shaming, untelevised extreme deprivation, and according to one contestant, misrepresentation of time. And afterward, the majority of the contestants regain a significant amount of weight and their metabolism has fallen.
While many in the health promotion industry understand that The Biggest Loser is unrealistic, weight loss contests in the workplace perpetuate, by example, harmful myths and perceptions about body weight, weight loss, exercise, and health.
Why Weight Loss Contests in the Workplace are a Bad Idea
Workplace weight loss contests may seem like a fun and harmless way to socialize while while encouraging and rewarding healthier eating and exercise habits.
In reality, they’re harmful for more reasons than I have for space to get into here. But here are a few of my top picks.
Weight loss contests are based on flawed assumptions.
Particularly in workplace wellness initiatives, there are two predominant assumptions about body weight that are so ingrained in our collective conscious that only a small (but growing) number of people even question them.
The flawed assumptions:
- In order to be optimally healthy, anyone with a body weight or BMI above the “ideal” range should lose weight.
- Anyone can lose weight and keep it off. You simply have to be determined enough and eat less and exercise more.
In actuality, the evidence does not support these assumptions. Learn more from our white paper, Mindful Eating in the Workplace: Shifting the Focus from Weight to Well-being.
Weight loss contests encourage behaviors that are unsustainble.
Restrictive eating can lead to serious psychological and physiological consequences.
Even when it’s repackaged as “healthy eating,” it’s really just diet-thinking in disguise, and has been proven to be virtually impossible to maintain for the long term. Among many other consequences, preoccupation with food, disordered eating, diminishing psychological well-being, and eventual compensatory overeating are common results of restrictive eating.
When a weight loss challenge involves exercise prescribed in rigid terms as a mathematical necessity for sustained weight loss, individuals are unlikely to develop the positive feelings and self-efficacy necessary for enjoying and sustaining regular physical activity. Because restrictive eating and rigid exercise regimens require an unsustainable amount of time, energy and willpower, they are a set up for eventual failure. This leads to another problem …
Weight loss contests perpetuate the eat-repent-repeat cycle.
When you begin with mistaken ideas about weight, then add restrictive, unsustainable behaviors, instead of improved health, you fuel the Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle. This cycle may include weight cycling (repeated weight loss and weight gain), which is physically and emotionally harmful and counterproductive to well-being. The Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle also fosters, or can be a symptom of, disordered eating. This ranges from common problematic eating behaviors like chronic overeating and/or feeling out of control around food to a full-blown eating disorder.
Weight loss contests foster weight bias and weight stigma.
The Biggest Loser and their counterparts in the workplace are not only ineffective and potentially harmful to those participating, they are indicative of how our society views and treats people living in larger bodies.
The Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA) described weight bias as negative attitudes and beliefs about people who do not fit a certain weight category which fuels harmful actions by others such as social rejection, bullying, and inappropriate treatment from medical and health professionals.
Weight bias is perpetuated by erroneous beliefs about larger-bodied people, such as that they are lazy, lacking in self-discipline or willpower, or that all people have the ability to become and remain thin. These ideas contradict existing science on weight and weight loss that indicate weight management is significantly more complex than the current “eat less, exercise more” model suggests. Weight is determined by myriad variables, some of which are beyond an individual’s control.
When a person thinks they deserve the weight bias they’re experiencing (internalized weight stigma), they’re likely to experience feelings of shame, anxiety, depression, or self-hatred.
While weight bias and weight stigma are harmful to society in general, workplace wellness professionals should also be aware that workplace weight loss challenges are counterproductive to mutual workplace goals of improved well-being, productivity, and quality of life.
Please! No More Workplace Weight Loss Contests!
There is an alternative to this archaic and detrimental weight-focused approach to health.
There is a growing movement away from restrictive, weight-focused strategies, toward a non-diet, mindfulness-based, weight-neutral approach to optimal well-being. These three key tenets create a comprehensive, inspiring, sustainable way to eat healthfully, value our bodies, and live our best lives. (Watch this video to hear Dr. Michelle May explain.)
Read our complimentary white paper and let us know what you think!
This article has been updated from a previously published version.
Did you find this article informative? Please check out these other posts you may like:
Mindful Eating, Resilient Living, and Peak Performance
Mindful Eating is a Skill – Lessons Inspired by Neuroscience
Mindful Eating in Corporate Wellness – Can It Really Work?
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