During last night’s two-hour finale of The Biggest Loser, amid the traditional dramatic before-and-after photos and triumphant success stories (she used to stuff her face with Doritos, now she runs marathons!), the tear-craving producers stuck in a bonus moment of uplift. Contestant Shay was called down from the ranks to center stage: Formerly 476 pounds (the show’s biggest contestant ever), she didn’t win the $250,000 prize; at a weight loss of 172 pounds, she didn’t even come close. (The winner was Danny Cahill, who went from 430 to 191 pounds, losing 239 pounds and any resemblance to his former self.) Without the further help of the show’s trainers and nutritionist, common sense decreed that Shay ever meeting her weight-loss goal of an additional 100 pounds was unlikely at best. But wait! Host Alison Sweeney then announced that for every pound Shay lost between now and next season’s finale in May, she would get $1,000 from Subway. Giant blank check! Hugs! Tears! Happy ending!
But after our fuzzy flush ended, we were left with a funny aftertaste. A recent New York Times story outlined not only the health risks Biggest Loser contestants face by losing weight so quickly, but also the high probability of their gaining back much of what they’ve lost. Paying Shay to lose more weight seems like it will only increase the odds of her eating her way back to square one. Once you’ve been paid to do something, how likely are you to then keep on doing it for free? A thousand bucks per pound is nearly as powerful an incentive for weight loss as the pressure of stepping on a scale on live TV in tight clothes. And both are temporary. We don’t begrudge Shay the money (she’s a social worker with a down-and-out backstory), but the prize just delays the reality — often glossed over in hyper-motivational Biggest Loser land — that losing weight without public scrutiny or a payday is really, really hard, and not at all fun. Once the cameras are turned off, the professional trainers disappear, and the prize money is gone, how easy will it be for someone like Shay to maintain the drive to keep going to the gym, every single day? Thanks, Biggest Loser finale, for reminding us of that. And now we’re going to go eat some Doritos. At least until someone pays us to stop.