Between my love of television and my desire to makeover my body, The Biggest Loser has always felt like the perfect combo for my leisure time. Of course, I’ve always been clear about how they are able to lose so much weight so quickly, but it’s something to keep in mind. It’s very easy to get sucked into the show and have similar expectations — especially if you are one that doesn’t read the fine print as the credits are rolling. We’ve talked about it before in our magazine, and I think it’s important to be realistic when watching the show. It is, after all, TV, and for a program to survive, ratings have to be considered. And in our society, the more extreme, the more attention one seems to get.
Wherever you fall in the debate about whether these shows are good or bad for pop culture, they sure have gained momentum: Heavy on A&E, Thintervention on Bravo, Celebrity Fit Club on VH1 and I Used to Be Fat on MTV, among others. The personal trainers can be a bit intense and loud, and there’s a lot of talk about calories consumed and burned. So it’s easy to come away with, “Man, I have to work really hard and be extremely diligent with what I eat in order to lose weight.” This could be inspiring for some, but it can also be debilitating for others.
For myself, who’s getting ready to watch The Biggest Loser finale tonight, and for those who find themselves either motivated or confused by tonight’s results, it seems like a good time to clear up some of the myths.
I had the opportunity to meet with season 11 finalist Hannah Curlee a few weeks back while she was in the Twin Cities, and asked her to explain what it means to participate on the show.
Q&A With Hannah Curlee
Q: What does it really feel like to stand on a scale in front of the other participants and the larger TV audience?
A: I kept thinking, this is me right now, I’m not going to look like this forever, but this is my starting point. Everyone has to start somewhere. And to finally start talking about some of those things about hating myself, about being a food addict, about how I eat when I’m eating in my house alone, about throwing away cake and going and getting it out of the garbage. It was about finally just being like, oh my gosh, I’ve let this secret pop out. But it’s one of those things that I held so close to my heart about how I felt about myself. And it was like once I started doing that, asking for help, taking that first step, I was just letting that baggage kind of fall to the way side. By admitting it.
Q: What do you say to the people who feel it’s just too hard to do at home, that they’d need a team like you had versus the stress and food and temptations of home to make their weight loss happen?
A: [The resources on the show] teach you, and they are there helping you and giving you the tools, but you are the one using the tools. You’re picking up the hammer and you’re nailing it, you’re doing the work. I would thank Jillian [Michaels] but she’d say, “Don’t ever thank me, you’re doing this yourself. I’m just showing you that you can actually do it.” Yes, I had help, of course, but I asked for the help.
Q: So do you get help in the kitchen on campus? I always assumed that you have chefs cooking for you.
A: Nope. The crew just buys your list. You could put anything you want on the list.
Q: Like a chocolate cake? You can put that on your shopping list?
A: You can. You can put anything you want on the list. You have someone grocery shopping for you, which is great, but it’s really your choice of what you cook. If I had a personal chef, that would be super easy, but we don’t. We do it. It is nice because the kitchen is always stocked, but you make your own choices. You make your own meal, do your own laundry, iron your own Biggest Loser T-shirt before you go on set.
Q: We get a lot of success stories at the magazine and through Life Time Fitness from people who meet their goals through the support of another person. You had the benefit of having your sister, Olivia Ward, join you on last season’s show. Do you think you would have been able to last as long if you didn’t have your sister there?
A: I didn’t want to do the show at first. I asked her, Do you know what they do to people on this show? Do you know that we have to stand up in front of America on a scale almost naked? I was like, you’re married, that’s great, but I’ll never get a date again after this show. Then she reminded me that we’ve been slowly but surely killing ourselves. Olivia and I went on diets for years, for 10 years together. And finally, when she was having difficulty getting pregnant, and was diagnosed with PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome), the doctor discovered I had it too and told me that you’re not going to have any children either if you don’t get healthy. And these are some of the hard additional challenges that women face when they are overweight.
Q: I think that’s important for people to remember, and many unfortunately learn from their doctors, that the added weight can cause such horrible diseases and conditions. This season, we’ve heard a bit more about all the health benefits from Dr. Rob Huizenga as participants improve and lose weight. Can you talk a bit more about some of the big “a-has” you had during your season on the show?
A: I’m not perfect, of course, but at the same time it’s like I’m armed with the knowledge now. I knew pizza was bad for me, I knew I was drinking too many lattes, but I never counted calories or knew exactly what I was eating. I thought that was the lamest thing. I was like, food journal?! That’s the lamest thing ever. Right down your feelings?! But it worked.
It’s hard because, when people watch it, they may see week one or two into The Biggest Loser and the first week people lose like 40 pounds. You have to understand, many of us were overeating for years. I was eating a whole pizza and a whole two-liter bottle of Coke for dinner, several times a week. So a lot of that is your water weight in the beginning, all the sodium from processed food. I can remember seeing some of the contestants in the beginning, and their ankles were so swollen. But as the numbers you lose aren’t as big, I learned that you should celebrate every pound. It took me almost halfway through the season to really celebrate my successes.
Q: Talk a bit about the workouts. What are those like? Do you work out all day long?
A: Not like what you see on the show. When you see us with the trainers and our team, it’s a three-hour workout. Those are the intense daily sessions. For the rest of the day, we do a lot of walking, hiking, spinning, swimming — just to keep moving.
Q: There’s a lot of talk about calories on the show, but no specific numbers are mentioned, which I’m always glad to see.
A: Because it’s so different for everyone. At my heaviest weight, I had to burn 6,000 calories in a 24-hour period. It’s quite a lot.
Q: That is a lot! They give you guidelines on what you’re aiming to burn in calories each day, but you’ve been careful not to reveal an exact number for food. Which is great because a lot of people had the wrong mentality that they should be consuming as few calories as possible to lose weight.
A: For me, food is more about fueling my life. I still love food and I still love to indulge in certain things, but at the same time it’s really about what am I going to be able to eat that, a) tastes good, that I’m going to want to keep eating, and b) what am I going to eat that’s going to help me get through the day?
And it’s about, really, just wholesome and natural foods. It’s so much about that. I never really realized what I was putting in my body, all the frozen foods filled with preservatives, fruits that are bathed in pesticides. I just never took the time to really see. Our bodies are so very important. I never treated it with respect — ever. I just didn’t.
There are so many additives in our foods and our meats. And how you can leave a frozen pizza in your freezer for several years or you can leave a jar of mustard or whatever in your refrigerator or a can of soda can last like 10 years. It’s crazy! And you think to yourself, what’s happening during those 10 years in that can of soda that I’m getting ready to put in my body and how’s my body going to process it? I notice now when I’m eating, I’m eating so clean, it’s great and my body processes food totally differently now.
Q: We love the message of quality food at the magazine! Has that changed how you cook, too?
A: I’ve kind of had to re-learn to cook. I always used garlic and onion, but I never really got into spices, I never really got into making my own salad dressings and making my own sauces for fish. And I love swapping recipes online.
Q: Are recipe swaps part of your maintenance plan? What else are you doing to keep the weight off? They often talk on the show about that aspect being more difficult than the actual weight loss.
A: It’s all about planning. And pack snacks, nuts and an apple. I’ve even heard of people bringing their own condiments when they travel, mini olive oils and dressings. I went to a wedding recently, so that day I woke up earlier to workout. And I didn’t have the chocolate fountain and the champagne and the fried shrimp, but I really wanted the cake. So I took a piece and enjoyed it, where before I would have had three pieces of cake, a piece of the groom’s cake and the other stuff. And I also realized, I don’t have to eat the entire piece of cake. I’ve never been one to push food away, so that was progress. It’s all about progress.
For fitness, I’m not doing the same workouts, obviously, but I work out six days a week for 90 minutes a day with a full day off, usually Sundays. But I break my workouts up: 45 minutes of boot camp in the morning and maybe a spin class or hike for 45 minutes in the afternoon. I also lift weights, which I really like because I feel stronger. But I really try to mix it up.
Q: The most compelling part of the show for me is when participants have this breakthrough — that’s what’s holding me back! Or that’s why I eat mindlessly! In the end, the trainers tell them that if they don’t figure out what they want in life, and what happened to get them to 250 or 350 or 450 pounds, they can easily go back to it. Because all the exercise and modified meal plans won’t matter if they can’t make peace in their head. What was your breakthrough like?
A: I was so dishonest with myself for so many years and when I got on the show I was so desperate to change, I didn’t care who knew my deepest, darkest secrets. It doesn’t matter if you need to lose weight or not, it’s all about finding out what you really want out of your life. I was never honest with myself about what I really wanted. I want everything. I want to be happy. I want to have a career, I want to have a husband and I want to have beautiful children — I want everything. I never, ever voiced that. And it’s OK to want everything in this world.
To want to be your best, to strive to be your best self. What a good goal. And now you have the energy to go after those things.