This is going to be a detailed review of the new show “My Diet Is Better Than Yours.” But it is impossible to talk about this show without the context of mainstream entertainment’s hugely popular show that precedes it: The Biggest Loser. For better or worse, that show has set the tone and expectation of how weight loss is viewed on television.
Alright, I’ll be honest. There is no “better” when it comes to the Biggest Loser. That show had nothing redeeming. It was horrible. It was the worst of “reality television” in every sense. It seems like more people come forward every week to talk about how that show was a terrible experience at the time, and messed them up in multiple ways going forward.
The Biggest Loser combined these elements:
- fat shaming
- extreme methods
- desperate contestants
- unrealistic expectations
- simplistic progress markers
- dangerous training
- general exploitation of suffering and human pain
I heard a great expression I wish I could attribute properly, describing the state of reality TV in the US. It’s called poor-nography. The contestants on the biggest loser are not necessarily all from the lower economic classes in the US, but obesity, especially extreme morbid obesity as often profiled there, is more prevalent among the poor than the wealthy. Of course this reality by itself leads to another kind of general fat shaming popular in the US, the facile way people say “oh yeah, in the third world poor people are skinny and starving. In the US, poor people are fat and overfed.” Easy to say, but hardly an accurate depiction of life in a nation where processed junk food is subsidized by tax breaks to processors/producers, and a significant portion of the lowest-income populations live in what are termed “food deserts.” These are neighborhoods and communities where basic grocery stores with real whole foods are scarce, but access to rivers of Mountain Dew and boxed snack cakes are no problem.
OK, I’m drifting into many potential tangents or rants here, but it is safe to say that the climate for understanding weight issues in the US is complicated, with a lot of moving parts. But a show like Biggest Loser reduces weight loss to the same old tired chestnut that people repeat and act like they’re saying some profound thing: hey, all these people have to do is exercise more and eat less.
If maintaining a healthy weight and body fat percentage were really, actually reducible to one of the fundamental laws of thermodynamics, well game over. Of course energy imbalance is a key factor, but it cannot be the only one. The body is not a simple math machine, it is a living organism with biochemistry involved in every single aspect of life.
Weight loss can be simple, but in a world of industrialized food, common pharmaceutical intervention, and metabolically broken people, it is never simple.
What’s in a Name?
Enter the new show My Diet is Better Than Yours.
Honestly, with a title like that, I am a bit turned off already. Does getting healthy have to be a competition? But I am willing to consider that a small concession to the format of network television. You can’t be the frog who gives the scorpion a ride, then acts surprised when the scorpion stings you. It is what it does.
But is it possible that this scorpion (aka, a network television show) might be able to mitigate its usual nature and not completely chew up and exploit these contestants? Is it possible that in the midst of the clear flaws (which I will outline from my perspective) it might actually give a deeper look into diet and weight loss? Could it treat the real human beings involved with some basic respect?
Again, the Biggest Loser set an incredibly low bar when it comes to respecting people, so just about any new show would have nowhere to go but up. Even so, I am glad to say that so far, I have high hopes for this show.
Full disclosure: I’m on Team Abel
I have to admit, I would have a high dose of skepticism about any new weight loss show. I would expect the nonsense of Biggest Loser to be the norm. But I was willing to take a close critical look at this program for one simple reason: Abel James in involved.
I know Abel as a podcaster. His show Fat Burning Man was in my regular rotation for a time. He fits into the world of low-carb, paleo, and whole foods. I joke that I hate Abel because not only is he apparently carved from marble, he’s handsome and has a velvety smooth voice perfect for podcasting. He’s also a decent left-handed guitar player. He’s the total package. But joking aside, he is a guy whom I trust to offer sound dietary advice. If he was willing to sign on to this show, there had to be something worthwhile here.
A New Paradigm
Right from the outset, it is clear that this show will not be Biggest Loser 2.0. The whole setup is different, and the tone and attitude are different.
Contestants picked their “expert” to be their trainer/coach for the show. We start with five contestants and five coaches. Each coach has a name for their diet of course. So we do have a little of the typical TV need to label things in easy terms. Some are silly, and somewhat gimmicky sounding. But it’s not about the names, it’s about the content.
Home Sweet Home
Instead of making all the contestants live in a compound together for a time, these contestants are living their normal lives at home, with the coaches visiting frequently. They are not isolated from family or friends. This is awesome. Already we have a healthier show format. Instead of the mentality of being shipped off to fat camp, the contestants are integrating new ideas into their real lives from the start.
This by itself already makes this show 1000 times better than Biggest Loser. There are reality shows that by necessity have to take place in an isolated environment. But regaining one’s health is not a game. That’s one of the differences between a strategy game like Survivor or Big Brother. Weight loss and long term health should not be short-term strategy games. I applaud this show for recognizing that in the format.
Attitude is Everything
So far, no one has been yelled at or demeaned. No one is being bullied or belittled. Again, this is a huge step forward in television. Jillian Michaels built a brand name and empire on the back of shouting at fat people. I think we’ve had enough of that. The coaches are shown as being truly concerned with overall well-being of their trainees.
More than the Scale
As any health expert will tell you, the scale is but one metric to tell us about health. This show does still make the scale the primary tool to determine who is “winning” but it does not necessarily make it the only thing. At weigh-in, we are sometimes told of other signs of improvement. Waist size going down (or in one case, up), blood pressure dropping, blood sugar readings. This is tremendous. We are at least hearing about health progress with more than one number.
Freedom of Choice
Sure, I know that this is a loaded phrase, and the sugar-bomb companies love to use it in weight loss conversation to deflect from their own contributions to the obesity epidemic. But in this show, it means something wholly different. If a contestant wants to switch away from their original plan, they are allowed to do so. They may only do so once during the duration of the show, but it is an option. I think it makes sense to limit the switching to once, because otherwise you might get a contestant mirroring the American trend of jumping from one diet to the next, week after week. There is incentive to try to stick with something for more than just a week, but if it truly isn’t working for a person, they can drop their expert. By the end of episode two, this has happened, and an expert has gone home. It was unclear to me whether the contestant now doubles up with one of the other four experts, or if a new personality is brought on to the show. I’m sure that will depend on what the producers determine makes for better TV.
Who Is Really Competing?
The setup of the show makes it much more about the experts’ success or failure than the contestants’. Again, should health be a contest? No, but if that’s the only way we’ll watch, I prefer the criticism to really come down on the self-identified experts. Their real-world trainees have to execute the plans and succeed, but this contest is much more about what is do-able and sustainable. The old model was about pushing people to their limits in a short time and seeing who broke and who didn’t. This model is far healthier for everyone.
A Few Cons
Honestly, I love this show, but because it is network, it can’t be perfect. Things need to be put out there in broad strokes, and because it’s TV, sillier stuff makes it to air that may not be at the core of an actual diet plan. For example, being an Abel fan, I think his air time would be better spent exploring why a high-fat/low-carb diet works hormonally, but they did a whole segment on fresh roasting coffee beans on the stove. I am hoping that as the show progresses, the experts who remain will have more opportunity to explain what is really at stake in their recommendations. But again, I may be expecting too much of broadcast television. It’s not the place you go for in-depth programming. (Now wouldn’t it be something if AMC, the home of Breaking Bad and Mad Men put their efforts into a show like this?)
The obsession with the scale is apparent, and while the show does do other markers, it still puts all the focus there. So we have a case where a contestant has lost a few inches from her waist, but is disappointed at a 6 pound weight loss in the first week. As someone who is currently steadily losing a couple pounds a week, I am well-versed in the struggle to not allow dramatic stories of people who drop 50 pounds a month set my expectations. I hope that we hear more of the other health markers continually improving.
The reality show machine would go nowhere without some goofiness. I honestly think I would be mad at this show if I were a vegan. The vegan expert they got is not just vegan, but really kind of out there with some other nonsense ideas that had nothing to do with veganism. The Clean Momma Plan “expert” is clearly mugging for the camera in her solo interviews, trying to hype things up Jillian-style. I hope we see less of that. The No-Diet guy gets screen time around peripheral concepts like the color of your plates and sheets. Come on man. (Don’t worry, I have good things to say about him.)
After one episode, I am generally hopeful.
Episode Two Notes
Having written a whole novel above about the show, I plan to keep current with it and do episode recaps that are more focused on the details in each episode.
- Abel’s Wild Diet – After episode one, I was of course thrilled that Abel’s guy was in “the lead” and that mainstream America would get to hear more about a diet plan that eliminated sugars and grains, and didn’t fear dietary fat. Really, with all the interesting news coming out about official bodies finally getting on board with that message, we may be at a tipping point in the zeitgeist about it. (I just wanted to use the word zeitgeist. It makes me feel like I’m Marc Maron.)
- Dawn’s Superfood Swap – we haven’t seen her on screen a lot. Her basic approach of switching highly processed foods for whole food versions is something most people could get behind as a first step whether paleo or vegan or anything. I’m interested in hearing more from her, though her trainee was all about the mac and cheese and cake. Hmm……
- Clean Momma. OK, is she just the wacky workout lady or what? Most of what we have seen from her is all about the weird ways to work in tiny extra workouts during regular daily chores. She’s doing fitbit mentality while not saying as much about diet. She did start to get into family influences on lifestyle, but we didn’t get deep yet. If she stays much longer, I’d like to see less wannabe tv personality and more substance. Your contestant lost a couple pounds, but her waist went up. We need you to give more guidance than just talking about being tough. And your taskercizing is nutty. Stop trying so hard to brand a thing. Let that woman pray the way she wants without adding your weird stretches to it.
- No Diet guy’s trainee did see a drop in blood sugar from week one. And he did talk a lot about sleep as a necessary component. We need to see more of this in our search for health. It affects so much. But it was disappointing to see that he attributed Jeff’s blood sugar drop to just sleep. As one who has lowered his own blood sugars in the last two months, I can tell you, I’ve slept well for months before the dietary changes. It is important but it won’t get you there by itself.
- Our vegan. Yeah, again, I’d be upset if I were a vegan and this was my representative. She had her contestant cover herself in oil and do a self-massage to “redistribute fat.” Total, uncut horse manure. Then she tried to get her to eat a vegan cookie, right after the whole group had an experience highlighting how much sugar Americans tend to eat. Proving once again, that just because a dessert is vegan, or paleo, or all-natural, it is still a DESSERT. Sugar is sugar, and your liver does not care whether it came from cane sugar, corn sugar, or organic agave strained through unicorn pancreas. But really that “redistributing fat” nonsense is what got her dropped.
- The group activity in the park with the huge vats of liquid and solid sugars was eye-opening. And instead of the shock of a pile of snack foods that they were being tempted with and scolded for wanting, this was a straightforward visualization of what we eat on average, along with the challenge of moving it all from one place to the other. (Come to think of it, those toxic waste barrels did remind me of Breaking Bad. Maybe AMC is involved…..)
- It still troubles me to rag on someone for allegedly burning fewer calories than the others. Determining actual caloric expenditure requires intense and expensive lab work. Anything else is a rough guess. (Yes, including all the machines at your gym that told you how many calories you burned.) Everyone worked hard during that challenge, but it is a contest format so someone has to be last. But I really hope that our more holistic experts will be able to talk on screen about the limitations of the CICO model. (calorie in calorie out)
I am still hopeful that on balance, this show will be decent. It will be far more helpful and realistic than what has come before. I will henceforth stop comparing it to The Biggest Loser, because it needs to stand on its own, not just surpass the incredibly low bar that other show set.
Until next time – Go Team Abel! But I truly hope all contestants find a sustainable way to heal their relationships with food and find hormonal and physical balance in their bodies as well. Each of us is playing a game only against ourselves. So far, that truth seems to be respected on this program. Let’s hope that continues.