Ithaca Blog

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Biggest Loser: Weighty Choices

It might surprise a lot of people in our non-televisioncentric town, as it did us recently, that there is a hit show on mainstream, network TV with the ungenteel title, The Biggest Loser. It doesn't have to do with personalities. It has to do with bodies. It's a weekly program where you watch obese people compete to lose weight.

A freak show? A race to the bottom in base TV programming? An abhorrent aberration?

Perhaps. But also immensely (sorry) popular.

The show is actually not as gross as it might be. It has a veneer of self-help boosterism, which can actually make it seem redeeming at times, if you don't stop to think about it too much, which of course is not a helpful practice with almost any TV viewing.

The show is a phenomenon, which actually is not so surprising when you consider its vast potential constituency. Recent government figures indicate that 127 million Americans - almost two-thirds of the adult population - are overweight.

Americans spend over $1 billion dollars a year on non-prescription weight-loss products that are not approved for safety or effectiveness. Today it was announced that a government-approved product is about to hit the market.

It's a pill called Alli, and it claims regular use can lead to weight loss of 5 to 10 percent.

Alli works by impeding the absorption of fat in the intestines, thus blocking calories.

One problem is that it also blocks nutrients. Thus, users are told to take a multi-vitamin supplement.

Another problem is the unfortunate side effect of "occasional loss of bowel control." We will let you imagine the details and ramifications of that.

There is also the problem of potential abuse. If the recommended dosage can help you lose 10%, why not double it and lose 20%?

Our society seems to have this idea that no problem is too tough for television and pills. But of course, dependency on television and pills is often the precise problem.

Obesity does have what is called a familial component - that is, not quite genetic, but influenced by family traits. But lifestyle components are important.

At the center of this is television, with game shows about the obese for the sedentary overweight, with orgiastic commercials for pizza, tacos, and soda.

It would be great if viewers took the title of the show personally. We are losers to succumb to such junk, and to revel in quick fixes. One key to real-life winning is the key to the front door, and a long walk outside. Maybe to the library, for something healthy for our minds that doesn't cost any more than TV. And when you get back home, if you hear somebody saying "Open the door, it's Domino's" - that's not a greeting, it's a threat!

Steve Burke
for Ithaca Blog

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