Thursday, April 30, 2015

People... People Who Need People: The Story of Weight Watchers

I just read in the newspaper that Jean Nidetch has died at the ripe old age of 91. Don't know who Jean is? Read on, and I'll tell you a story...

Who was Jean?
Jean Nidetch was an unhappy Long Island housewife who was tired of being fat. She had struggled with her weight all her life and was ready to make a change. She consulted her doctor on how to lose weight. He gave her a particular diet and told her to follow it to the letter. Apparently it involved eating liver, which Jean said she didn't like. He told her to 'eat it anyway.'

Jean followed the fairly draconian diet and lost twenty pounds, but found her motivation flagging. So she invited her friends and neighbors into her living room every Saturday morning for weekly weigh-ins, "empathy, rapport and mutual understanding." The group soon outgrew Jean's living room and mushroomed beyond her wildest dreams.

Jean and her little group became what we know as Weight Watchers, a weight-loss business that is a household name around the world. (By the way, her maiden name was Slutsky. Can you imagine? I would have gotten married in a New York minute to have gotten rid of that one.)

What's interesting about old school Weight Watchers is that it wasn't about the diet--it was the support of meeting together with others. Weight Watchers' actual eating recommendations have shifted and morphed over the years. The secret of Weight Watchers' initial success is the accountability their system provided. There are WW locations all over the world, and people still go to weekly meetings despite the fact that I'm told they are about as dull as dry toast. Toast that will cost you points, by the way.

How It Works Now
Weight Watchers has changed a lot over the years. It's no longer just about meeting together. It now sells a wide variety of frozen and packaged frankenfood. There is also an online version that people can do on their own.

The modern incarnation of WW is basic calorie counting. They don't specifically count calories--they count 'points,' and each point corresponds to a certain number of calories. I think it's something like 50 calories per point. You are given an allotment of points each day, and once you've exceeded your points, you can't eat anything other than points-free foods, like vegetables. You can eat anything you want, but you have to stay within your points. You figure out pretty quickly not to spend your points frivolously so you don't have to munch on celery for dinner.

Many people have successfully lost weight on this plan, but like most other diets, many of them also gain it back. In fact, even after her great success, with both weight loss and a business that made her a millionaire, Jean continued to struggle with weight for the rest of her life. According to her Wall Street Journal obituary, "Her philosophy on weight loss was that it required constant maintenance. Weight Watchers members were taught to weigh in once a week and stay within two pounds of their goals."

Honestly, I have mixed feelings about Weight Watchers.
I did the online version after I had the Darling Son #2. Life was crazy at that time and I'm an uptight, type-A personality. I needed some accountability to get back on track after the blissful flow of meals from the church ladies stopped. I came within a few pounds of my pre-kids weight and couldn't get any lower. I got frustrated and then just figured that's where my body wanted to be and made my peace with it.

I'm going to talk more about 'goal weight' in another post, but I was initially pretty positive about Weight Watchers. I liked that it didn't put a lot of restriction on what you could eat, instead they just gave you a guideline and had you figure it out. It did give you a sense of ownership about your choices, rather than an 'eat this, not that' kind of guideline.

But the more I read and learn, the more inclined I am to dislike the focus on the scale and the calorie-counting strategy. All calories are not created equal, and it simply doesn't seem to work for people long-term. WW has a very high rate of weight regain--and so does pretty much every other diet brand out there. And really, I think what we weigh is not the most important health indicator.

The restriction of calorie counting is just not sustainable. Most people will lose weight on pretty much any restrictive diet. The hard part is keeping it off.  Cynics like to point out that WW really profits from those who regain and re-enroll over and over and over. Regain just seems to be part and parcel of dieting. One reason for this is that....

Dieting is Stressful
Researcher Janet Tomiyama from the University of California at Los Angeles conducted a study on stress and dieting. According to the book Secrets from the Eating Lab by Traci Mann, Tomiyama divided dieters in different groups. Some were required to simply track their calories, others had to both track and restrict calories, and some just restricted and did not track their eating (these participants were given pre-packaged meals to ensure they consumed no more than their allotted 1,200 calories per day. Yikes--that's not a lot.)

Then Tomiyama tested the dieters' cortisol levels. Cortisol is the stress hormone that we have talked about before. Producing excess cortisol can lead to fat gain, especially in the middle where too much adipose tissue is particularly problematic from a health perspective.

Tomiyama found that the dieters all had elevated cortisol levels. The simple act of dieting had produced a stress response in their bodies. As Mann writes, "It's not just that people should avoid stress while dieting. It's that stress cannot be avoided when you are dieting, because dieting itself causes stress."

I suppose stress is only one part of why restrictive diets fail, but I can help but love what Weight Watchers was all about in the beginning. It was simply getting people together. Get them face to face, build community, and let them support each other.

To keep up with the times, WW also offers an online system. You don't have to go to boring meetings, you just track your eating online. As convenient as the online version is, it doesn't replace the warm fuzziness (or, for that matter, the accountability potential) of real, live, standing-right-in-front-of-you people.

I can't see how anytime a group of neighbors getting together weekly to laugh, cry and high-five each other wouldn't be a good thing. I would have loved to have been in Jean Nidetch's living room meetings all those years ago. Jean was a stitch. (I suppose you'd have to develop a sense of humor if you grew up with a name like 'Slutsky.') Laughter and friends are good for both body and soul.


  1. Interesting post! I knew of Jean Nidetch via some retro recipe blogs that made stuff from the WW cookbooks, but I didn't realize she started the whole thing. I did WW about 15 years ago and lost over 50 lbs, but ended up becoming ill before hitting my goal weight because I was eating too many processed foods and consuming a ton of sodium in place of fat (I have an inner ear disorder that is affected by sodium intake). They weren't really equipped to handle deviations from The Plan, so I quit. I also got really tired of thinking about food All. The. Time. Not long after, I learned to cook real food and found that focusing on preparing simple, fresh meals works much better for me than feverishly analyzing nutritional info panels on the sides of boxes.

    The group support thing is really key to their success. Charles Duhigg talks about that in The Power of Habit, using Alcoholics Anonymous as an example. The way they emphasize the meetings seems to be very similar to WW, though of course they don't charge you :)

    1. Hurrah for real food! I remember the hassle of trying to calculate points on homemade, real food recipes. It was 'easier' to refer to a nutrition label on a box, which is messed up! What you said about thinking of food all the time is also interesting--it's a natural result of living in a state of caloric deficit--it makes people so food-focused, which is not helpful for weight management! I think just eating real food--whole, unprocessed food and letting the scale needle fall where it may is a better strategy!

    2. Not only are you sorta hungry all the time, you're always having to think about your last meal in terms of points, and your next meal in terms of points, and oh! I have to have lunch with a client tomorrow, so I'd better look up the menu ahead of time to figure out what I can eat... it's crazy!

    3. Yes, it's a lot of work--constant vigilance. I think that's why long-term maintenance is so difficult. It's just too head-wrecking. I know the 'eat whatever you want/just keep within your calorie allotment is appealing on one level, at some point you have to address food quality. Whole, real food is just more satisfying.

  2. New Diet Taps into Revolutionary Plan to Help Dieters Lose 20 Pounds in Only 21 Days!