A&E'sÂ newÂ reality show Fit to Fat to FitÂ takes the idea of yo-yo dieting to a whole new level. In what the network isÂ callingÂ "the most extreme weight loss experiment ever,"Â fitness trainers agree to pack on pounds so they canÂ slim downÂ alongside their overweight clients.
The series, which premiered last night, is hostedÂ by Drew Manning, the personal trainer who famouslyÂ gained and then lost 75 poundsÂ on purpose. (In the fallÂ of 2014 he dramatically revealed his back-to-rippedÂ bodyÂ on Good Morning America to promote hisÂ book about the experience.) "Getting fit again was the hardest thing I've ever done, but it made me a better man," he says in the opening credits of Fit to Fat to Fit.
Inspired by Manning's journey (or gimmick, depending on how you look atÂ it),Â the showÂ follows 10 trainers as they abandon theirÂ rigorous diets and exerciseÂ routines to intentionally gain as much weight as possible, under medical supervision, for four months. ThenÂ they work with their clients to get in shape together.
It turns out we weren't the only ones to have that reaction. On Twitter, many peopleÂ expressed concern that Fit to Fat to FitÂ wasÂ portrayingÂ something troublingÂ at best and straight-up dangerous at worst.
After watching the premiere, it's hardÂ not to be moved by the enormous personal sacrifice that the trainers makeÂ to better understand the challenges their clients face.Â And it's interesting to watch theirÂ perspectives evolve. JJ Peterson, for example, starts out completely unsympathetic:Â "Who on earth wouldn't want to be thinner, to be healthier, to have more energy?" he says.Â "Being healthy is a choice. If you're not healthy, change."
Meanwhile his client, Ray Stewart, articulatesÂ why changing is far easier said than done.Â "Oh, 'Eat less and work out,''' he says, mimicking the standard advice. "Wow, why didn't I think about that? It is a little insulting.Â I doubt a trainer would really understand thatÂ emotional pull that food has."
ButÂ after JJ doublesÂ his caloric intake and puts onÂ 61Â pounds (prepare to feel a little sick as he stuffs himself withÂ burgers, pizzas, and milkshakes) his outlookÂ changes: "The more time passes in this experiment, the more empathy I'm gaining," he says.
But is this too extreme?
WhileÂ it's heartwarming to witness the success of JJ and Ray (spoiler alert: they both lose a ton of weight), Fit to Fat to Fit isÂ still an incredibly irresponsibleÂ "experiment."
Putting on a few pounds isn'tÂ necessarily harmfulÂ if you'reÂ eatingÂ healthy fats, lean proteins, plenty of fruits and veggies, and staying physically active. ButÂ trouble starts when you pack onÂ weight fromÂ a high-calorie diet that also includes a lotÂ of saturated fat, as JJ appears to do on the show.
"Weight gain like this can increase your risk of diabetes, hypertension, and mortality in general," saysÂ Bartolome Burguera, MD, PhD, an endocrinologist at the Cleveland Clinic and Director of Obesity Programs.
When you eatÂ large amounts of fatty foods, deposits of fat getÂ stored in your muscles and organs, especiallyÂ your liver, explainsÂ Eneida O. Roldan, MD, anÂ associate professor of pathology atÂ Florida International University. "And a diet that's heavy in saturated fat raises LDLÂ cholesterol levels, causing plaque to build up inÂ your arteries," she says.
Then there's JJ's lack of physical activity while he's trying to gain weight. TheÂ sedentary habits heÂ adopts wouldÂ makeÂ the damageÂ he's doing with his dietÂ even worse.Â "What many people don't realize is that a sedentary lifestyle in and of itself can cause cardiovascular problems, even if you're thin," Dr. Roldan says. "So eating a high-calorie diet and not exercising? That's like a double-whammy for your health."
After yo-yo dieting, can your health fully bounce back?
Fortunately for the trainers on the show, the answer is yes. "Acute, short-term physical changes are usually reversible," says Dr. Roldan. "In this case, with someone who was previously physically fit and had healthy habits, it will be very quickly reversible."
Dr.Â Burguera agrees: "Recent literature does not suggest that weight 'cycling' like this necessarily increases morbidity or mortality."
But another big question remains: Does this whole experiment even make sense? Can two people really share the same weight loss journey?
Not exactly,Â as you might have guessed. AÂ trainer who is most likely a thinner, healthier person wouldÂ have a distinct advantage, says Dr. Burguera.Â "If a leanÂ personÂ gains weight, it will be relativelyÂ easyÂ for them to loseÂ it again, because their brain will beÂ programmed to craveÂ fewer calories," he explains.
"In order to really understand what it 'feels' like to be an overweight person struggling to loseÂ weight, a 160-pound person would have to actually lose 20 pounds for example." Only then would they experience theÂ intense hunger usually felt by an overweight person (whose brain is programmed to want more calories) on a diet.
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The bottom line?
The real problem with weight loss reality shows like this one, says Dr. Roldan,Â is that theyÂ don't always addressÂ the long-term behavioral changes thatÂ are necessary to establish healthyÂ habits. Weight loss can take years of effort, she points out.Â "As a doctor, I disagree with what they're doing. Any change of structure takes a lifetime to establish. And it's important to consult with a physician who understands weight loss and has seasoned skills in how to treat these conditions."
People forget that obesity is a chronic disease, adds Dr.Â Burguera. "It's not always as easy as simplyÂ eating less and exercising more," he says.Â "The key to maintaining weight loss over a long period of time is making small changes you can stick to. Specifically, improving your diet, getting involved in an exercise program, getting enough quality sleep, and managing stress."