June 25, 2010 — -- A former contestant on the hit weight loss show "The Biggest Loser" is claiming that the show's unhealthy practices led her to develop a life-threatening eating disorder.
Kai Hibbard, 31, was one of the final four contestants on NBC's "The Biggest Loser" in 2006, when the show was in its third season. While Hibbard appeared to be a poster child for the show, losing 118 pounds in just 12 weeks, she now says that she nearly died.
"I had no idea I had a problem," Hibbard told ABCNews.com. "When you spend four months surrounded by people who are all doing this to themselves, even if intellectually it seems wrong, you don't realize. You just think if they're doing it, I'm doing it."
And what she was doing was trying a number of techniques to shed weight at an alarming rate -- from fasting from dressing head to toe in multiple layers of clothing and working out in 100-degree temperatures.
"I'd put on a sports bra, a tank top, a t-shirt and a sweatshirt and then my spandex shorts, pants, sweatpants, a baseball cap and just zip it all up," she recalls. "I'd go to the gym, which had no air conditioner, and work out for two hours or as long as I could stand it without drinking water."
"Some people would drink water and just swish it around in their mouth and spit it out," said Hibbard. "But I couldn't do that, I knew I'd want to drink it."
Hibbard said that this was common practice for contestants in the hours leading up to the weigh-in, where whoever lost the least amount of weight that week would be sent home.
An NBC spokeswoman, in a written statement, responded to Hibbard's allegations.
"Contestants on 'The Biggest Loser' are closely monitored and medically supervised. The consistent health transformations of over 200 contestants through nine seasons of the program speak for themselves," said Jill Carmen of NBC.
But Hibbard said that there was nothing healthy about her body when she finished the show, significantly lighter than her original 265-pound frame.
"My hair had started to fall out in clumps, I had black circles around my eyes and I was covered in bruises," said Hibbard. "I hadn't had my period in three months and I could only sleep three hours a night."
Biggest Loser's Kai Hibbard Says Show Induced Eating Disorder
Hibbard said that when she reached out for help on the show she was rebuffed, and encouraged to "tough it out."
Several medical professionals said that they weren't surprised to hear about Hibbard's experience.
Joanne Ikeda, a nutritionist emeritus at the UC-Berkeley, said that she has heard from several former contestants of weight loss programs like "The Biggest Loser" who say that while they might have shed weight, it certainly wasn't done in a healthy way.
"The program is not helping the American public understand what it takes to lose weight and keep it off," said Ikeda. "What it takes, of course, is behavioral changes and adopting a healthier lifestyle."
"In order to demonstrate the type of weight loss [Hibbard and other contestants had] you have to do the most drastic things possible," said Ikeda.
Dr. Robert Kushner, a professor of medicine at Northwestern's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, said that the praise contestants get on reality shows when they do drop the weight just feeds into an unhealthy mentality about food and exercise.
"[Hibbard] represents a group of individuals who develop eating disorders during a competition to lose weight because psychologically they are getting so much praise and admiration from other people that they'll do anything to sustain their weight," said Kushner.
"If they put it back on there would be embarrassment and a sense of failure," he said.
Hibbard says she overcame the pressure to keep off the weight only after her family staged an intervention.
"My family was worried I was going to drop dead," she said. "They babysat me for weeks on end as I went through therapy and met with a nutritionist."
Hibbard said she struggled with the eating disorder even while she was pregnant, forcing herself to go on runs even as she bled.
"I remember my very first meal when they tried to have me eat a substantial amount of food -- and it was only an egg white omelet and some blueberries -- and it took me and hour and a half to eat and I cried through the entire thing," she said.
Biggest Loser's Kai Hibbard Apologizes for Deceiving Viewers
Today, Hibbard is married with a healthy 20-month old son, but said she still has her demons when it comes to food and weight loss.
She allows herself to indulge and limits her workouts to three to five times a week, but hopes that by speaking out she'll educate others about how hard weight loss can be.
"If I'm going to accept praise and gratitude for being part of something that really inspires people, I also have to accept responsibility for people who struggle," she said. "People come to me and say they can't lose weight as fast as they saw me do it [on the show] and that they've become bulimic or anorexic."
"I want people to know that I'm incredibly sorry if I did a disservice by deceiving them by the amount of weight I lost on TV and that I'm on the same long journey that they're on."