Thor Viðar Jónsson was a contestant on the first season of Iceland’s version of ‘The Biggest Loser’, a reality show that pits contestants against each other to see who can lose the most weight. While Thor believes the people who produce the show in Iceland truly believe they are helping people, he raises serious questions about their methods.
What piqued your interest in taking part in the show in the first place?
When I moved back to Iceland in 2011, I made the decision that I wanted to have gastric bypass surgery. It was shortly after I got done with the orientation programme at Reykjalund that they started advertising for ‘The Biggest Loser’. And I thought, “You know what? Let’s give this a go.” I had been trying to lose weight, thinking that maybe this will be the one that sticks. I was already waiting on hearing whether or not I would qualify for surgery, and it was about a twoto-three-year waiting list then.
Had you seen the American version?
I had, yes. I knew what the show was about, and the American version kind of gave the impression of what I’d call “weight loss porn.” It’s people looking down on these people, and then them emerging as skinny, happy people. So I weighed the consequences and I thought to myself, “Iceland’s a small country. The people that are going to run this show are not going to be evil.” They wouldn’t be able to get away with it in Iceland. In the interviews I took with Saga Film and Skjár 1, the people were incredibly nice. I felt pretty confident. That I had nothing to lose, except weight.
What was the daily routine like?
Wake up at six, go to the gym, work out for an hour, sometimes more. It’s pretty much just cardio. Then you go home and eat something, and then between nine and eleven you go back, where they have some kind of contest thing, and they film that. If there’s no filming that day, you go back and work out at ten. You eat at noon, then go back for the trainer workout, which is filmed. That’s the hard one, where they push you to your limits and film you falling over and crying. They get you to that point because you’ve already had two workouts that day and it’s early afternoon. You’re so exhausted that your emotions come up. Some were able to handle that better than others. Then you go back home, have some kind of snack, and then work out again at six in the evening.
So that’s three “regular” workouts, and then an excruciating one on camera, every day? That sounds pretty intense.
It was. I mean, anyone in a situation where they’re that big obviously hasn’t been working out in a long time. They’re carrying a lot of weight, their joints are under a lot of pressure, but we had a lot of faith in our trainers. But I still question taking people from a completely sedentary lifestyle to a full-on, hardcore workout routine. I wouldn’t say they restricted our calories—they had us eating healthy—but it’s a competition, you know. You want to lose the most weight. So a lot of us were cutting back.
What was the turning point for you?
It first dawned on me that this might be unhealthy because of the way my body reacted. After about three months of being back home, I started to notice that even though I was moving a lot more and eating healthy, I was still gaining weight. It really didn’t take that long for the weight to start climbing up. About a year after the show, I had gained about 25% of my weight back—about fifty kilos. Who knows how much muscle mass I had lost, as they weren’t really thrilled with weightlifting on the show, because when you build muscle, you gain weight. And the whole point of the show is to lose weight.
So why did the weight come back?
Well, the thing about dieting with intense cardio workouts is your metabolism slows. You’re burning somewhere between 350 to 500 calories less per day after the show. So for someone who goes into the show who’s burning maybe 1,500 calories per day when they go in, by the time you get out you could be down to 1,000. So you’re not only in a worse off position because your metabolism has slowed, but your body is thinking the whole time that it’s in starvation mode. As a result, my body wants to get back to 170 kilos, and my metabolism’s been destroyed a bit. Now, if you lose weight slowly, like two kilos a month, you’re probably going to be in good shape. But you should still be eating well, and to bring your metabolism up, you need to lift weights—to build up the “furnace” of your body to consume more “fuel.”
And lifting weights was discouraged on ‘The Biggest Loser’.
Yes. And 95% of the time, diets just don’t work. It’s a depressing fact, but it’s true. For the vast majority of the obese, the most successful method of weight loss that they have is the gastric bypass.
So even with the best of intentions in place, with everyone running the show believing they’re helping and inspiring others, this needs to end.
It needs to end. I just want this show to stop in Iceland, and everywhere, really. Because the science has come out on it, and it just doesn’t work.
Thor will soon be undergoing gastric bypass surgery.