By Rene Lynch, Los Angeles Times
8:20 PM EST, January 4, 2013
When America meets the three youngest "competitors" ever to be on "The Biggest Loser," trainer Dolvett Quince hopes it will inspire the country to turn off the TV — and get moving.
NBC's weight-loss reality show kicks off Season 14 on Sunday with its biggest twist yet: the addition of three teenagers — two 13-year-olds and a 16-year-old. They appear wise beyond their years, in part because of the hardships they have endured.
Have a box of Kleenex handy when freckle-faced Biingo says, "My weight just holds me back so much" in sports and Lindsay watches from the sidelines as her school gymnastics team practices and says quietly, "Girls laugh at me because of my weight."
Quince, taking a break from training at the start of the new season, choked back emotion and paused to collect himself while talking about the sense of shame these youngsters feel about themselves, and the millions of other young Americans they represent.
"I want every parent in America to see this show and say, 'That's it!' And turn off the TV and then go run around with their kids," Quince said. "If that happens, then we've done our job."
Not everyone agrees. Adding children to a show known for driving contestants to tears with punishing workouts and food temptations has been met with criticism. Won't this open the children to ridicule? Is it putting too much pressure on the youngsters? Could it set them up for an eating disorder later in life?
"Biggest Loser" executive producer Lisa Hennessy asks that viewers reserve judgment until after the Sunday and Monday episodes that open a new season of a show that has seen ratings sag of late. She said "The Biggest Loser" decided to take the risky step of bringing children onboard in part because it felt hypocritical not to: Here was a prime-time TV show encouraging health and fitness among adults, and completely ignoring kids even as childhood obesity rates soared.
The network quietly held an "obesity summit" involving childhood obesity experts to decide how to move forward, she said. Among the ways the game is being changed to accommodate the teens, who are dubbed show "ambassadors": They won't step on a scale, they won't face elimination, and they won't be put on a drastic, low-calorie diet. Instead, they will be immersed in a food-and-fitness regimen overseen by a childhood obesity expert that puts the emphasis on functional fitness and making sound food choices, Hennessy said.
"We're not exploiting the kids, we are helping the kids," she said. "The fans will not be disappointed."
If the first episode is any indication, the youngsters will be largely sequestered from the rest of the competitors. All three trainers — including the returning Jillian Michaels — bypass the traditional gym workouts as they guide the kids through laughter-inducing obstacle courses, drills and games. The goal isn't burning calories as much as it is flat-out fun. Adults watching at home will probably get jealous.
The teenagers won't live at the ranch, but will return on occasion and — at least in the first challenge — will be incorporated in a clever way that puts the kids in charge. ("Telling the grown-ups what to do was really fun!" Lindsay says.)
Trainer Bob Harper said he couldn't have imagined tackling the touchy subject of childhood obesity when the show started 14 seasons ago. But he said that ignoring the problem is no longer an option. He said he hopes parents with obese children will learn how to start a family dialogue about health and wellness.
"If one person in the family has a problem with weight, then the whole family has a problem," he said. "The whole family needs to tackle it together in a positive way."
Michaels said the decision to tackle childhood obesity is what compelled her to return to the show this season. As a new mom of two, she said, she is more cognizant than ever of the growing epidemic.
The third teenager joining the cast, 16-year-old college-bound Sunny, said she welcomed the intervention of adults to help her address her problem with stress eating. She said she understands why parents might feel uncomfortable talking to a child about his or her weight. But, she said, adults should give kids more credit.
"It's not like we don't know we're overweight," she said. "We just don't know what to do about it."
Until joining the show, Sunny said, the issue of her weight was a charged topic — one that was never addressed. That silence, however, was deafening. It only made her feel more isolated from her thinner classmates.
"Nobody wants to go there," Sunny says in Sunday night's episode. "And I think it's time we went there."
'The Biggest Loser'
When: 9 p.m. Sunday; 8 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)