Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Obesity In The Obama Era: The Biggest Loser Hits The White House

The White House has a very different message than the TV show...and maybe contestants will take it to heart
Tonight's episode of The Biggest Loser, NBC's weight loss competition show, features a segment with the cast members, host and trainers cooking in the White House Kitchen with Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford, following a stroll through the Kitchen Garden for some veggie harvesting with Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass. The episode was (obviously) shot before the Fall Harvest of the Kitchen Garden last week, and the contestants are understandably thrilled as they pluck fresh tomatoes, roots, basil and squash, and quiz Kass about President Obama's fave vegetable ("He loves broccoli," is part of that answer). Currently, average cast weight is above 260 pounds, with various Losers weighing far more. (Above, Kass, in chef's jacket, poses with the cast of Loser; host Alison Sweeney is in yellow, trainer Bob Harper is in tie, trainer Jillian Michaels is in t-shirt without logo)

One contestant in tonight's episode notes that "We were invited [to the White House] because what we're doing is showing America the courage to change their life." That's a happy idea borrowed directly from the Obama election campaign, but far more likely, Loser was invited to shoot at the White House because the obese contestants mirror the 34 percent of the adult population over age twenty in the US who are also obese, according to CDC's latest statistics. Obesity has become a major issue for the Obama administration, as the move to reform health care has taken up much of the air in the political room. Obesity and chronic diet related disease are credited with adding billions of dollars of avoidable expenses to the national budget, and the White House and the rest of the administration have been focusing on it intently, with all kinds of hard and soft policy approaches.


On Loser, contestants are put on extreme diets and monitored by trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels for onscreen workouts that would make professional athletes weep. This has been the subject of intense criticism by fitness professionals as inappropriate for obese people; the show has been called "danger TV" for putting the obese contestants at risk. Current contestants have dropped an astonishing and possibly unmaintainable amount of weight in the first seven weeks of this season; one contestant notes in the video, below, that he's lost one hundred pounds. (Above: Loser contestants in the Kitchen Garden)

So certainly contestants can learn from the White House, which has emphasized the opposite of extremism in the current nutrition education campaign, with a series of public remarks made by First Lady Michelle Obama and Kass highlighting this. The White House has a temperate approach to nutrition, and encourages "lifestyle balance," which is understood as making small changes such as cooking at home when possible and eating more fruits and vegetables, rather than dieting--and incorporating fitness as a daily, fun part of personal regimes, rather than attempting the monster workouts on Loser. Thus Mrs. Obama's recent bout of hula hooping on the South Lawn, and the President's pick-up games of basketball.

"The way we approach it, we try not to do diets," Kass has said. "As opposed to just change our lifestyle...a diet means that you're inherently going to fall off it because it's inherently a finite set of time."

Having the contestants cook in the White House kitchen and harvest veggies from the garden with the telegenic and charming Kass is a good opportunity to bring White House nutrition and fitness messaging to a big prime time audience--about 7-9 million viewers in any given week--and it's the kind of message that's much needed, to counteract the possibly toxic, extremist approach that the show itself promotes. It's also a swell way to continue to raise awareness that the White House is very serious about its campaign....

*The recipe for the Biggest Loser White House Salad is here.

Here's a fun clip of Kass with the Losers in the garden: