NBC's REALITY TV SHOW THE BIGGEST LOSER is based on a winning proposition: Be the contestant most able to radically transform your overweight and out-of-shape body without the aid of surgery, drugs, or supplements and you'll earn a quarter of a million dollars.
The second season, which began airing in September, has added a twist. The battle of the bulge has also become a battle between the sexes: the blue team of seven women versus the red team of seven men, each led by a different trainer. The game is to see who can endure daily three-hour-plus workouts, pass up temptations such as mouthwatering deserts and chances to win money (by getting to play a card game, for example, if they give up a week with a trainer), follow a low calorie diet, and survive a series of "eliminations" by teammates.
Sounds fair except for one problem. If you saw the first episode, you couldn't miss the look of shock on trainer Bob Harpers face when he realized he would be coaching an all-women team. And what about contestant Suzy Preston's admission that behind her women power hollering, she was scared to learn the girls had to compete against the guys? The fact is, men lose weight more easily than women at least, it sure as hell seems that way.
Physiologically, the guys do have the advantage, says Carole Conn, PhD, associate professor of nutrition at the University of New Mexico and a researcher on the topic of metabolism and exercise. Take a man and a woman who are both sedentary and 35 years of age, 225 pounds, and 57. If these two did everything exactly alike, he would win. If they just sat still all day, he would have a 300-calorie advantage which means he gets to eat an extra Snickers bar plus a few M&M's.
Men just lose it faster, period, says Andrette Ward, MD, a childhood obesity researcher at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Although both sexes have the same type of muscle mass (slow- and fast-twitch fibers), men are born with more of it, while women have more fat. Female hormones cause water retention and fat accumulation under the skin, all in service of protecting a fetus, according to Sports Nutrition: The Awful Truth, by Mark Baugh. Men, lucky creatures that they are, have bodies wired to reduce subcutaneous fat and build muscle, thanks to their abundant testosterone. Because muscle uses more energy than fat, a man burns more energy than a woman just to live.
But it's not as if there's no contest, offers Joseph Donnelly, EdD, professor and director of the Energy Balance Laboratory Center for Physical Activity and Weight Management at the University of Kansas. If you go by absolute pounds, women have no chance, he says. If you look at the percentages of body weight lost, it's a neck and neck race.
The shows producers have indeed tried to level the playing field: The competition is not based on the total number of pounds shed but rather on which team, and ultimately which individual, is able to achieve the largest percentage of weight loss.
The 14 contestants are isolated in a spa-like setting on a luxurious ranch in Southern California. Here they face the challenge of learning to eat right and exercise. They also face being voted off the show in weekly elimination sessions when the team that has dropped the least poundage (percentage-wise) must forfeit one of its members a choice that usually boils down to personality and who's most weighing the group down.
After 12 weeks, the remaining three contestants return home for five months to put their new diet-and-exercise habits to the test of reality. At the end, the finalists will gather for one last weigh-in.
As anyone who's been watching the show knows, the guys have taken the lead.
On episode five's weigh-in the womenhad shed a weekly total of 36 pounds 3.41 percent of their current team weight, but not enough to beat the men, who dropped 3.74 percent of their total heft. While the women had to eliminate a teammate, the men celebrated. San Francisco police officer Mark Yesitis literally made a splash with his 17-pound loss. He was so happy to dip below 300, he jumped in the pool.
Journalist Greg Critser bets there'll be more cause for partying in the men's camp. No pun intended, but my gut tells me the winner would be a younger guy who doesn't have a girlfriend, says the author of Fat Land. How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World. He's talking about motivation, and how high it is in a man who knows he'd probably get luckier if he dropped a few pounds. The other thing the male contestants have in their favor, says Critser, is that dieting is a novelty to them. They haven't been bombarded with get thin messages all their lives.
Joe Donnelly, however, thinks that women's experience with dieting is a plus: By the time they're 10 years old, they're watching food. After more than 20 years in the weight loss field, though, Donnelly refused to bet any money on a winner.
Eric Sternlicht, PhD, assistant professor of kinesiology at Occidental College in Los Angeles and a corporate fitness consultant, agrees with Conn and Ward that the men hold the best cards, biologically speaking. But, he hedges, since stress plays a key role in weight gain, women who are generally more willing to look at the emotional and psychological issues causing them anxiety and pain might be better at losing weight over time. (Contestant Jeff Levine, himself a physician, put it less charitably when the women won a treasure-hunt-like challenge on a recent episode I think bitching and crying sometimes burns a lot of calories.)
Bob Harper admits that with his women's team, he's leading the statistical dark horses. I hear them saying, I can't lose weight like the men do, look how easy it is for them, he says. I tell them, well, you're exactly right. It is easier for them. Are you going to deal with that and move on or wallow in it. There have been times when we've gotten our asses kicked and I've had to come in and ask them, 'Why are you here? Because women can see beyond the numbers on the scale to how their whole lives might change, Harper suggests, their motivation might be deeper.
Whoever the winner is, all gender-betting aside, it's hard not to be inspired by watching these people. Last season's 12 contestants lost more than 750 pounds. Sure, they have help celebrity trainers, larger-than-life incentives, and millions of eyes riveted on every nudge of the scale but when it comes to losing weight, no body can do it for them. An NBC message board buzzes with viewers saying they're dieting and working out along with the contestants: One who calls her self Drkgoddessi dropped 100 pounds during the first season and writes, 'The show helped keep me motivated and let me know...I can reach my goal.' Another, Pati, acknowledges that watching TV is one thing and doing the work is another but says, 'When I saw the show and saw how others just like me were able to stick it out, I cried. I thought, I can do this ~if they can ' why not me'? ?
Samantha Dunn, author of Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex, and Salvation (Owl), lives in Los Angeles. She's betting on Suzy Preston.