Monday, March 15, 2010

Unintended Consequences – What effect might the Biggest Loser have on women with anorexia or bulimia?

We kicked off our Biggest Loser program in an effort to get staff members that were significantly overweight, sedentary, and otherwise uninvolved in our wellness program engaged. The program has been pretty successful with this targeted group. People are losing weight, moving more, reducing the need for medications and dropping dress sizes. I’ve mentioned before that the level of participation exceeded our expectations. We currently have 95 people actively participating in the program. That’s almost 40% of our staff. With that many folks involved, it’s shifted our organizational culture to be much more focused on what we eat and how much we move. For most of us, I think it’s a good thing, but I’m starting to worry about a small group of staff.

It was obvious from the beginning that we had some women sign up to participate that didn’t appear to need to lose weight. Some said they wanted to improve the way they eat, lower their cholesterol or drop just a few pounds. We hadn’t set any biometric criteria to enter the program so everyone was welcome. I’ve had a chance to listen and observe over the past two months and I just finished reading the Locker Room Diaries -- a book about women and their body image.

It’s been interesting watching people weigh in each week. Some slim women step on and off the scale checking and double checking the number. Some stop by every day to weigh themselves and worry if the official scale is calibrated with the scale in our locker room and their scale at home. People have observed some eating habits of slender participants that seem rather unhealthy and some of the team conversation also has caused some people to worry about their teammates and whether some might have an eating disorder. Given our population of well educated women, I think it’s reasonable to assume that some of the women participating do have an eating disorder. So, is this program good for them? Is the constant focus on weight, what we’re eating, and exercise bombarding them with messages that are unhealthy for them? Should we have set some biometric criteria for participation?

Oddly enough, it was something Tyrone Wells said as an introduction to Baby Don’t You Change at a concert I was at Friday that made this come together for me. He basically said that women are most beautiful when they’re comfortable in their own skin. He’s living in LA and talked a little about the unrealistic images that are held out for women in magazines and on TV. I was sitting next to a good friend who has a beautiful daughter that has struggled with an eating disorder. I thought, “Am I making things more difficult for women like her?”

5 comments:

Nellie said...

If we were younger, less educated, maybe. I can't imagine that this program is creating these behaviors in these women (or men?). It is far more likely that they already had these issues or obsessions before we started. If anything, now you are aware of the people who may be at risk and are potentially in a better place to address it (if necessary). I wouldn't blame the program. The other thing to consider is that people with real eating disorders (as opposed to simple preoccupation with their weight) prefer isolation and secrecy surrounding weight loss/eating. I can’t imagine that someone with a preexisting disorder would involve themselves in such a team-centered program. On the flip side, I think the team support and focus on healthy eating vs. losing as much as fast as possible (which is what all the team captains are focused on) are a positive experience for everyone.

And I personally would have hated a biometric qualifier. To have someone tell me I was fat enough to participate? No thank you! And we need to support those people who only have 5 or 10 lobs to lose just as much as those who have 100 – so they don’t end up years down the road, needing to lose 100!

fran melmed said...

to be honest, the biggest loser approach is just a difficult one for me to swallow. it's been unhealthy for people in the actual tv show, even with its cadre of professionals there to help the participants. (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/25/business/media/25loser.html) i know you're not engaging in the same intense weight reduction, so it's not a like-to-like. it's more a borrowing of a recognized name for a support group. weight watchers also does group weigh ins, knowing that the group response and commitment can be motivational.

having said that, i agree with nellie that it's highly unlikely your contest created any unhealthy behaviors or actual disorders. people with actual, classified eating disorders do not tend to go public with their behaviors. there may be individuals in your program who have some unhealthy obsessions you're now noticing. maybe you can approach them about your observations and share what available services you have--should they show interest. being in hr, that may be crossing a privacy boundary you do not want/should not cross.

your comment about biometric criteria reminds me of our other conversations about the whole foods program. writers have also expressed that their focus on biometrics (and lower ones to achieve the discount), might also be influencing unhealthy eating. anorexia and bulimia stem from other issues and manifest themselves through an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise and an unrealistic body image. i'd suggest that someone without these disorders would not suddenly develop one to achieve a group prize or a larger WF discount.

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Janet McNichol said...

I’m not really concerned that our program has caused unhealthy behaviors, but it has brought some to light. As you both point out, that may be a good thing. Our emphasis has been on eating healthy and not extreme weight loss. I’m also grateful we had everyone meet with a qualified professional to review their initial assessment and talk about their goals. Some people have said that the meetings were too brief to be as meaningful as they would have hoped, but people did receive some individualized recommendations. For example, one person shared with me that she was told to eat more calories because she had cut back too much. Some of the books on my reading list came from people sharing what had been recommended to them during those meetings. I agree that someone with anorexia or bulimia would probably avoid participating. But, I think there are “recovered” women that are negatively impacted by the focus on weight with weekly weigh-ins. I also think that people don’t want to be seen at work eating something unhealthy right now and this may lead to closet eating.

I think our awareness as a society that being overweight carries with it significant health risks is a good thing and I think employers should play a role in helping their employees adopt and maintain healthy behaviors. I also think we tend to forget about a much smaller population of primarily women with eating disorders. I thought about this when I noticed that Whole Foods wasn’t dinging anyone for being underweight even though it’s probably more dangerous to your health than being overweight. And, now I’m thinking about it again.

Thank you both for sharing your thoughts.

Krista Ogburn Francis said...

Thought-provoking post, Janet. If the Biggest Loser program was introduced at my company as the signature wellness event, I don't know how I would feel--whether I was overweight, average, or underweight.

You've met me, and you know I am quite petite. But there are still actions I could take to become more healthy, to increase my wellness quotient. I could exercise more, drink more water and less coffee, etc. If we're focused on the Biggest Loser, those changes are lost to me. Plus, maybe I feel a little disenfranchised and left-out because I can't really participate and the program doesn't meet my needs.

I am not trying to be critical or dismissive in any way; I think you've done great stuff. It's more a question of how do we include everyone, regardless of health or weight status. Can we have alternative programs, so there is something for everyone?

Can we focus more on wellness, and less on weight, maybe?

I'm just thinking aloud here!

Janet McNichol said...

Thanks for your comment Krista. Let me know what you think about our next campaign -- the Biggest Mover. I just finished my first post about it. I'm hoping we'll be able to transition most of our Biggest Loser participants into it as well as draw in other staff members that weren't interested in a weight loss focused campaign. Over the course of the year, I do hope we offer something that appeals to everyone.