Weight Watchers: Godsend or grinchy drag?

If you want to lose weight, are you thinking of trying or returning to Weight Watchers?

I haven't hit a WW meeting for at least 5 years, so you might expect me be critical, but I'm positive, with reservations.

Deja Pseu, in her insightful post "Extreme Maintenance" says WW made her "obsessive, self-involved, self-righteous, anxious". I too was briefly caught up in the nit-picky weirdness of counting half-points and weighing to the microgram. If you have these qualities, a highly structured program can bring them roaring to the fore- but I also learned to laugh at myself if I got too "Watchy".

So don't throw the plump-cheeked baby out with the bathwater.

WW teaches three things: how to

1. Control portions: how much you eat
2. Choose what you eat, especially healthier options (like high fibre bread instead of a croissant, dammit),
most significantly, to
3.Take accountability for one's own behaviour.
It's not the restaurant, my partner, my colleagues who "make me" eat way more than I need
, it's me.

All the related behaviours (e.g., counting points, keeping a diary, attending meetings, weighing in) are there to point you toward those three outcomes.

When a friend says she doesn't, for example "like all that counting points at Weight Watchers", I wonder if she's unwilling to do the heavy lifting of taking personal accountability just now. (I mean, she learned to play bridge to the Masters level, right?) If ready, she may not like every aspect of the program, but will give it an honest shot.

The whole package (changing behaviour, eating fewer calories and increasing activity) is no small challenge, and means WW is sheer hard work. When results are slow, it's easy to decide the program isn't for you.
Maybe you need to eat more, take things very gradually, and I've seen people tell their WW leaders so. A good leader says, just come. One woman spent a year just absorbing the counsel before making changes.

Not everyone concerned with managing weight needs WW's structure and support.

From what she's written, I infer that Deja Pseu is fully capable of making wise choices autonomously. She has knowledge (both of herself and nutrition), self-direction, and a wise perspective on social pressure.

And there's my colleague Kieran, exhausted, dumpy, short of breath when his baby was born two years ago. He calculated how many calories he'd be eating at a healthy weight, studied Canada's Food Guide, downloaded a calorie counter, and kept precise track of intake. He never uttered the word diet, he "modified his eating".

But if you have tried and tried, and just can't do it alone, work that WW program honestly for 90 days. Then you can carp, knowing it's less likely a screen for avoiding the work.

(There are other weight management strategies, such as hiring a nutritionist, a long Canyon Ranch stay, or signing onto the Zone Diet delivery, but this post is about WW.)

Some things irk me about WW (besides not getting to eat what I want, whenever I want it). I loathed their thin-adulation, such as their slogan "Nothing tastes as good as thin feels." Whoever wrote this never tasted fresh french fries from a Quebec chip wagon.

A few of the leaders were dippy, but most were stand-up funny, encouraging and realistic. WW's goal weights seem low for some people's body composition- so set your own goal if you don't think theirs makes sense. I didn't need the rewards; if you don't want a gold star and applause at a milestone, don't wave your hand to announce it.

products, which they sell at meetings, were unpalatable but they don't require you to eat them. And there's the cost, which some people find high.

But are these criticisms just excuses to keep from getting on with it?

At my first WW meeting, I was enormously relieved to have tools and moved by the support. They taught me to accommodate entertaining, travel, my chocolate fetish, my foodie husband.

Weight Watchers did not advocate yo-yo dieting. They want you to achieve your healthy weight and maintain it, and their target weight ranges increase with age.

If you have tried on your own, if your health is suffering and you cannot face another year in that shape, go. (If you want to lose to conform to a social stereotype or hang on to a 'young' self-image, read Pseu's post and have a nice restorative martini.)

WW is kind of like an all-inclusive Caribbean resort, minus the dance contest: you pay to enter a particular experience, and it's more enjoyable if you get into it. You can alter some things, but it's their program. Stay open and try it.


Susan B said…
Hi Duchesse, you make some valid points (no pun intended). The one thing I miss about WW is the meetings. They are fun and there's a lot of cameraderie.

I did lose weight the first two times with WW, back when they did the "exchanges." The last two times I tried (after they switched to "points"), I followed the program to the letter, was constantly starving, and didn't lose a gram even after four weeks. I think overall their calorie/points recommendations are far too low for me, and the way they're structured promotes very low-fat eating, hence the constant hunger pangs and light headedness.

And stay away from their products, especially the snacky type stuff! Full of high fructose corn syrup.

I do know people who are able to make this work to lose, but I've known very few who keep the weight off long-term. Still, they seem to enjoy the program and keep going back. Chacun a son gout, I say. If someone is able to tailor the program to their life, more power to them!
materfamilias said…
I also found much to like about Weight Watchers when I couldn't shift 15 pounds on my own in my mid-40s. A few years ago, I went back for a refresher and followed their non-point-counting program which I think is realistic and healthy -- and teaches good habits for a healthy life -- a pyramid structure of eating that has veggies and fruits as a base, whole grains and starchy veg (potatoes, yams) in the middle, and meat, eggs, low-fat dairy at the top, in smaller amounts. There's room for treats but they do have to be accounted for or they slow down weight loss, which is, after all, the goal.
I attended more to combat the social issues around eating and weight gain than to learn how to eat healthily, but I was pleased to get helpful techniques on all fronts. I, too, always found the leaders supportive, encouraging, funny, and realistic -- there's so much in our society that says you should be slim BUT you should be fun as well (that is, don't say "no" to another drink; of course you want to have fries with everyone; oh, don't be a spoilsport, let's have pizza; have a piece of cheesecake) and my body, like most, can't handle the contradiction.
Right now, I'm thinking of going back to help me get back to healthier patterns I can't seem to stick to on my own, but getting to the meetings is one thing too much in my busy schedule. And that's the other thing about WW -- attending, paying for meetings, concentrating on what food to buy and eat -- all of that says that my health (which my weight is a component of) IS important, not just to be pushed aside in the face of other people's preferences or my own busy schedule.
Anonymous said…
I aired my personal views of WW in an earlier posting. And I also explained my discovery of a non-wheat, non-cow's milk way of eating that suits my body absolutely.

My experience of WW is exactly as Deja Pseu describes. The feeling of running on an empty tank takes the shine off of life for me - I can't do it. And my family say I'm a nicer person to have around now too!

In the UK, WW also offer a second way which they call 'No Count'. It is based on eating as much as you want (within reason) of certain healthy foods. It is very similar to my 'Fat Around the Middle' way of eating as it requires cutting out bread. But it requires low-fat alternatives which I've now stopped using.

Deja is right. You need protein and fat to lose weight and to maintain an even blood sugar level and balance insulin. Ask any athelete.

I hope you get the 'Fat round the Middle' book soon, Duchesse. I know you'll find a lot of interesting advice in it. If it is of any incentive to you, I've lost an inch from my waist and ribcage in a month since changing my dietary habits. BTW I would recommend buying the vitamin and amino acid supplements they recommend to ensure you get exactly the right balance of essential nutrients.
WendyB said…
My mother is doing it now and making some progress.
Anonymous said…
I had to go to WW post college. I realized this one day when I pulled on my boyfriend's jeans by accident, and they FIT.

Weight Watchers taught me valuable lessons I use to this day, most of all portion control. No one needs a meat serving larger than a deck of cards!

I walked daily in those days to shave off the pounds put on by endless pints of beer and late night pizzas. I still realize the importance of daily activity, especially walking.

I'm one of those people who succeeded on WW, mostly because I just needed the EDUCATION they give you.
Anonymous said…
materfamilias, I think you raise a very important point regarding the contradiction of presenting yourself as slim and yet maintaining the 'fun' approach to eating. As soon as you cut out the 'fun' from food you are automatically viewed as sensible and therefore middle aged! That 'fun' devel-may-care attitude is associated with the innocence of youth and is indeed probably the way we all behaved in those days.

But to be healthy and slim in middle and older age requires discipline as all French women will tell you. In order to live with discipline in the long term you must not consider yourself to be deprived, you have to find a way of living and eating that works for you that leaves you feeling completely satisfied by the right amount of the right kind of food. When that happens the obsession falls away and the liberation is indescribable.

I'm deeply sceptical of WW now. Whilst I appreciate that they try to promote the health aspects of losing weight, they also promote and sell products that are not wholesome, full of artificial sweetners and other substances that have been linked to brain tumours, and low-fat substitutes which have been proved to actually lead to weight gain in the long term.

Incidentally, but sort of related to what I've been saying, WW no longer operates in Italy. When I learned this all my suspicions about it suddenly made sense.
Duchesse said…
GP- They have the "No Count" option here too. WW limits fats but does not cut them out and you can get plenty of protein. They allow higher or lower carb amounts depending on your preferences. I'm unwilling to give up all bread, pasta, potatoes.

materfamilias- There are online options but I still like the meetings approach.
Anonymous said…
Duchesse, I have only given up potatoes for three months. After that I can return to them in moderation. Bread and pasta I eat, but made from wheat-free, gluten-free flour. It's been fun trying different types of pasta and my favourite (made from corn flour and rice flour) is delicious and leaves me satisfied without the bloated feeling. I've found a wheatfree bread flour that can be used in my bread maker, and also buy rye sourdough.

So you see, life isn't that bad without wheat.
Anonymous said…
My mother, who loathed her body and dieted her entire adult life, was a charter member of Weight Watchers back in the early 1960s. She had just as much success with WW--i.e., net zero--as with all her other weight-loss campaigns. I was so affected by her evident misery and self-hatred that I have never, not once, owned a scale or gone on a diet. (I should add that I had some genetic help: I inherited my father's slender build, not my mother's pear shape.)

The great irony is that my mother was a trained dietician who was very savvy about nutrition and who always served her family healthful, well-balanced meals. She herself refused to eat with us, though: she'd stand in the kitchen nibbling at nonfat cottage cheese. And feeling empty, always.

I do think, relative to Deja Pseu's point, that there is value in the camaraderie and support of WW meetings. (And of course if one's health is threatened by one's excess poundage, one should certainly seek to remedy the situation.) I just wish that communal energy were harnessed in the service of something other than the pursuit of an ideal physical image. How about universal health care, for starters?
Duchesse said…
fritinancy: (I'm not a dietician and so credentials to say the following, zero): I believe some people lose weight more easily than others, whether due to leptin, metabolic processes whatever, and it's near impossible for a small percentage.

If one tries to force a certain body type to become another, or become too thin, it either doesn't work or negatively impacts health.

Other people (and I do not mean your mother) don't lose for other reasons, like my former MIL who "only" ate an entire avocado on salads, but used diet dressing- and wondered why she didn't lose. Or was it the bag of candies hidden under the car seat?

I think there's energy to both manage weight (a meeting is less than an hour a week) and do good in the world. But then I live in a country with universal health care already :)

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