Times Insider shares insights into how we work at The New York Times. In this piece, Gina Kolata, a science reporter, offers insight into her recent story about a study that yielded surprising discoveries about the physiology of obesity and helped explain why so many people struggle unsuccessfully to keep off the weight they lose.
It was such a clever idea — why not look at the “Biggest Loser” contestants and ask what happened to them over the years? But how, I wondered, had Kevin Hall, the researcher at the National Institutes of Health, who actually directed that study, even thought of it?
It all began, Dr. Hall says, because he likes to watch reality television shows. “It’s one of those guilty pleasures I have. When I get home from work I want to watch trash. A friend said, ‘You ought to check out the Biggest Loser.’ I was more interested in something like “The Bachelor,” but I decided one night to turn it on.”
He tuned in to the NBC show, in the middle of an episode. At the end, the contestants stepped on scales and, to Dr. Hall’s astonishment, registered incredible weight loss, as much as 13 pounds in one week.
“I was like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ” I decided to tune in the next week. I saw a bunch of people getting yelled at on treadmills.”
But what he wanted to know was: What are they eating? What is their body composition? He dug around on the Internet and found the name of the show’s doctor, Robert Huizenga, and his contact information. He emailed, then called and asked: How many calories are the Losers burning? The answer was that though the show was not measuring precisely, the Losers did wear some not-very-accurate devices to estimate calories.
How much exercise? The Losers did three hours of intense exercise a day and were encouraged to do more.
What did they eat? They selected their own diets, but were told they should at least eat a minimum amount. The show did not keep track to see if they ate that much.
“I had these questions — what happened to their metabolisms, what happened to their body compositions?” Dr. Hall suggested collaborating with Dr. Huizenga to find out.
There were issues — professional differences and personality clashes between a member of Dr. Hall’s team and Dr. Huizenga. To make matters worse the institute was disinclined to have Dr. Hall do the study because they did not want to be involved with a reality TV show.
But Dr. Hall was persistent.
“I had a very interesting group of scientific questions, and I couldn’t do this study at the N.I.H.,” he said.
There was no way he could bring obese people in and make them exercise that much and diet that strenuously.
In the end, the study went forward, with Dr. Huizenga’s cooperation. That was how they got the contestants’ metabolic and hormonal data before season eight began and at the finale.
“Then we said, ‘We’d like to see what happens long term.’ ” Dr. Hall said. At first Dr. Huizenga was interested, but then he said NBC wanted the institute to fund a big reunion party. That, of course, was out of the question. So Dr. Hall was on his own.
Then Dr. Jennifer Kerns, who had been a Loser herself in an earlier episode of the series and then worked as a doctor with the show, moved to Washington. Dr. Hall told her his problem — he wanted to study the Losers six years later, but had no way of contacting them. She told him about a secret Facebook page to which Losers belonged. She helped Dr. Hall find them through that page, which enabled him to do the final metabolic measurements without the involvement of NBC or Dr. Huizenga. He invited the 16 contestants from season eight to come to the N.I.H. for two days of testing. Fourteen agreed.
When the federal researchers measured the Losers’ metabolic rates, they were shocked — at the show’s finale, the contestants’ rates were lower than would be expected for people their size. But now, six years later, they were even lower.
“It is very disturbing. I almost don’t believe it,” Dr. Hall told me in December, shortly after he saw the results. “I was just blown away.” Rigorous tests produced the same conclusion: six years after the show’s finale, the contestants’ metabolisms really were slower than they had been when the contest ended.
And, that, in the end, was what made the results so stunning. For example, Danny Cahill, the man who won the contest in the eighth season, (losing 239 pounds in seven months,) was now burning 800 calories a day less than expected for a man his size. And he had food cravings that were often irresistible, leading to binges. No wonder he gained back more than 100 pounds despite his best efforts not to.
Dr. Hall sent out an email to the contestants, telling them the news, writing: “We suspect this will not come as a big shock to you guys, who are actually living in your bodies and having to work so hard to keep weight off! As you know, I am living the same pain! However, this is a big surprise for the scientists who are trying to understand these metabolic changes that occur with weight loss and regain.”
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