Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Weight Watchers secret of success: in a world where fad diets show up faster than you can say "grapefruit and cabbage," Weight Watchers doesn't pr

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ANNIE WAS HAVING ONE OF THOSE nights. Minutes after plucking a mini Kit Kat from the bowl of Halloween candy by her front door, she unwrapped a Reese's peanut butter cup. When she found herself rummaging for still more, she knew that her mind and body were crying out for something, and it wasn't food: It was strength. "I was about 20 pounds over-weight and felt extremely out of control. I didn't know what to do," the 42-year-old lawyer says. "And then I thought, Wait a minute. There's a whole system out there for people like me." Twenty-four hours later, she hesitantly walked into a Weight Watchers meeting on Manhattan's Upper West Side, stepped on a scale, and took a seat.

In a market where diets blow in and out of fashion like pricey handbags, Weight Watchers has become the equivalent of a trusty canvas tote--dependable, if a bit fuddy-duddy. Forty-two years after its inception, the program is still going full force. Annie is one of countless Weight Watchers converts: While the company won't divulge just how many members are on the books, it runs more than 46,000 weekly meetings in 30 countries and had revenues in 2004 of $966 million. It must be doing something right.

Most people can stick to a diet for a month or two. But only one in five manages to maintain a 10 percent weight loss for even a year, according to research by James Hill, PhD, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and cocreator of the National Weight Control Registry. "We are very good at helping people lose weight, but we're terrible at helping them keep weight off," Hill says. "Most of the popular diets produce weight loss, but the problem is that they're not a realistic way for people to live."

Weight Watchers preaches lifelong healthy eating over short-lived diets, a philosophy that makes for long-term followers. When Consumer Reports examined the biggest players in the diet game--including Atkins, Ornish, and SlimFast--Weight Watchers' attrition rates were impressively low. And sticking with a plan translates to keeping the pounds off. According to a comprehensive review of weight loss programs published in the January issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, Weight Watchers adherents maintained a loss of about five pounds after two years. While five pounds is hardly the stuff of Extreme Makeover, some experts believe that's exactly the point. "Weight Watchers is more likely to succeed in the long-term because they don't go for quick, dramatic loss," says Thomas Wadden, PhD, director of the Weight and Eating Disorders Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and coauthor of the Annals review. "Instead they focus on teaching members how to eat within the context of the outside world."

WEIGHT WATCHERS GREW out of one woman's personal battle with the scale: In 1961 a housewife from Queens, New York, invited six overweight friends to her apartment. Jean Nidetch told her guests that she'd been following a diet she'd received from the New York City Department of Health, announced that she'd lost 40 pounds, then challenged them to do the same. The food plan wasn't especially noteworthy--its main tenets were exercise (for good cardiac health) and balanced nutrition--but the group dynamic was. The friends met on a weekly basis to hash out their diet travails, eventually chipping in to buy scales for communal weigh-ins, and slowly they began to lose weight. Friends brought more friends, until the little meeting that could spawned offshoot gatherings in nearby homes. Two years later, Nidetch (who at 81 no longer does interviews) incorporated Weight Watchers and the group held its first official meeting atop a movie theater, where they charged $2 a person--the same price as the movie tickets downstairs. Today, although fees vary depending on location, New Yorkers pay $28 (including membership) for their first meeting and then subsequent attendance fees of $13 per week.

FOR MORE THAN FOUR DEcades, Weight Watchers has remained a reduced-calorie diet that has kept up with nutritional science while avoiding the diet-fad pendulum. (Low-carb has never been part of its lexicon.) In the sixties, the plan addressed governmental concern over most people's inadequate iron consumption by encouraging dinners of liver and spinach. During the seventies, the company appointed a former director of the National Institutes of Health as its first medical director and hired a staff of nutritionists to develop and introduce food "exchanges" (or servings), which ensured that members ate a wholesome mix of grains, meat, and produce. In the eighties, Weight Watchers added new information about cholesterol and saturated fat. In 1997, partly inspired by new nutrition labels featuring standardized portion sizes and a growing trend toward eating out, Weight Watchers introduced its most popular program yet: the points system, now called the Flex Plan.

Flex teaches members to consider portion size--often for the first time--and helps them devise ways to feel more full on less food. Based on consultations with Weight Watchers' scientific advisory board, the plan bestows a point value on every bite. (Points are determined using calories, fat, and fiber, factoring in both nutrition and fullness.) A 200-pound woman is allowed 26 points a day (roughly 1,450 calories); at 150 pounds, her quota drops to 22 (1,250 calories). Newbies use a slide-rule device to calculate points while shopping and quickly learn how easily they add up. A two-scoop sundae costs 11 points, and a serving of eight cheese ravioli with a half cup of marinara sauce delivers a whopping 16 points.

Using their points strategically, members can stay within bounds while still giving in to the occasional craving. Meirav Devash, a 28-year-old editor from New York, swore off her beloved Swiss cheese when she learned that one slice carries the same two points as a cup of fat-free yogurt. "I get more satisfaction from the yogurt, and I'd rather spend my remaining points on a little chocolate than use all of them on cheese," says Devash, who has dropped nearly 50 pounds since she joined just over a year ago. Before that, she flirted with nearly every diet out there, her self-control withering under straitjacket-style plans. She'd choke down fat-free ricotta cheese and Splenda when what she really wanted was chocolate. And if she succumbed and ate a Hershey's Kiss, she felt as if she'd failed. "I'd ruined the day, and thought I may as well go on an Oreo binge since I was already offtrack," she says.

Weight Watchers doesn't intend to abandon its Flex Plan anytime soon. But recently, the company realized that not everyone wants to carry around a point counter, so last year it introduced the Core Plan, a no-counting alternative. Members who sign on for this option choose from a list of wholesome, low-fat, filling "core foods" that squelch hunger without wasting calories or triggering cravings. Beans, lean steaks, quinoa, and fresh strawberries are in; white rice, short ribs, and cranberry juice cocktail are out, as are most desserts. Stick to the Core, the rule book says, and you can "eat as much as you need to feel satisfied."

To help people figure out exactly what satisfied feels like, Weight Watchers provides a satiety scale: Zero equals very hungry/starving, five equals very full/stuffed; members are told to aim for the "comfort zone" straddling levels two and three. (Of course, when you're staring at a juicy, half-eaten steak, this guideline may seem irrelevant.) Karen Miller-Kovach, the company's global vice president of program development, notes that the Core Plan taps into the current trend toward mindful eating. "There's a demonstrated link between self-monitoring and successful weight loss," she says.

When Miller-Kovach and her team of nutritionists developed the Core Plan, they were also partly responding to criticism from researchers like Stephen Gullo, PhD, president of the New York- and Beverly Hills-based Institute for Health and Weight Sciences, who notes that for some people, even a little bit of chocolate can trigger a binge. Gullo, the author of The Thin Commandments Diet, commends Weight Watchers' approach to eating wisely but believes all diets share a common problem: They don't consider an individual's behavioral history with certain foods. "It's fine to say you'll eat just one cookie," Gullo says. "But if you've never been able to stop at one in the past, you're opening up the floodgates." The Core Plan does a better job at closing those floodgates by banning treats from its list of approved foods, but because it also allots 35 points per week for a member to spend any way she wants, Gullo notes that people who have a tendency to binge have a doorway to excess.

Ironically, the other major criticism strikes at Weight Watchers' very foundation: Some experts say its philosophy of moderation is more hindrance than help. While studies have shown that gradual weight loss is more sustainable than the quickie variety, there are people who can't get their juices going without the reward of dramatic weight loss. "More extreme diets--and more extreme results--are exactly the kind of thing certain people need to begin a long-term change," says Michael Dansinger, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Tufts University. Dansinger coauthored a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, published this January, in which he found Weight Watchers to be no more successful than Atkins, Ornish, or the Zone. He interpreted his results to mean that those who stayed faithful to the more drastic plans were likely motivated by the instant gratification of losing weight quickly.

Dansinger's findings suggest that any 1,500 calorie diet (roughly what's allowed in most of the plans he tested) can help you lose weight. What he didn't account for, however, was community. In his study, the group on the Weight Watchers diet was told only to follow the program's food plan; they weren't asked to attend meetings. But the face-to-face contact and occasional hug at Weight Watchers gatherings, along with the accountability of the weigh-in, can mean the difference between falling off the wagon and sticking with the program.

NEARLY THREE YEARS AFTER hitting her goal weight, Annie, now a size 4, still faithfully attends her Friday night meetings. "When I tell people at lunch that I have Weight Watchers tonight, they look at me like I have an eating disorder," she says. "They're missing the point. You can't just lose weight and graduate. There's no magic bullet." By combining nutritional science with group support and a network of inspirational leaders, however, Weight Watchers may be the closest thing to a magic bullet that the weight loss community has to offer. With this formula, a no-gimmick program started by an overweight housewife from Queens has held its own against a slew of flashy competitors.

Across the room at Annie's meeting, a member raises her hand and admits she enjoyed herself a little too much during a recent vacation to Hershey, Pennsylvania. "I don't feel good about it right now," she says. "But I'll get back on track tomorrow." The team leader asks the woman how many pounds she's dropped so far. "Thirty-three," she replies, then smiles as she soaks in the applause.

Cara Birnbaum is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Allure, Elle, New Jersey Monthly, and Organic Style.

RELATED ARTICLE: You'll Never Diet Alone

From South Beach to the Zone, here are some diet programs that want to hold your hand. Compare and contrast.

Aside from Weight Watchers, a few other diet programs have shown widespread appeal and considerable staying power. (The programs below have been popular for just two and a half to more than 20 years.) Some rely on prepackaged food; others provide formulas for putting together your own meals. But all of them appear to have one thing in common: a support network made up of various combinations of consultants, chat rooms, and phone hotlines. James Hill, one of the top specialists in the field, helped us compare three of the most popular programs.

South Beach

THE GIST: Founded by Arthur Agatston, MD--who developed the diet for his obese and diabetic patients before publishing it in his best-selling book--South Beach stresses cutting processed carbohydrates and promises not only weight loss but also dramatically reduced cravings for sugary and starchy foods. Agatston's best-selling book is now accompanied by an online program.

THE FOOD: The diet eliminates so many foods that you can't help cutting back on calories. The two-week initiation phase is harsh: no bread, rice, potatoes, pasta, or anything sweet, with the goal of quelling your cravings for them. Phase two reintroduces some carbs in the form of whole grains and fruit but dictates strict portion control until you reach your goal weight. Phase three (maintenance) increases food options but continues to stress smart choices and sane portion sizes: You're allowed unlimited low-fat protein (Moroccan grilled chicken; paprika-spiked shrimp) and six to seven daily servings of carbohydrates, including whole grains and produce (a half cup of cooked couscous is one serving).

THE COST: $25 for the book, and $5 a week for online access.

WHAT YOU GET FOR THE MONEY: The Web site provides customized meal plans, more than 900 recipes, chats with Agatston and registered dietitians, and message boards where you can interact with up to 8,000 members a day.

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: The South Beach platform is based on the reasonable idea that people should eat sensible portions of nutritious food. Because phase one is so restrictive, the pounds melt off quickly and may encourage dieters to go the distance, although little is known about South Beach's long-term success. There's no scientific data to support the claim that eliminating starchy carbs will kill cravings, Hill says, and he points out that this diet, like many weight loss programs, doesn't sufficiently stress exercise. Some critics also argue that recipes can be pricey to make, though Kraft's new South Beach line of prepackaged foods makes it reasonable (albeit more highly processed): Meal prices hover around $3.20.

Jenny Craig

THE GIST: In the company's words, the program takes a "food, body, mind" route to promoting weight loss, with customized menu plans, a strong emphasis on exercise, and weekly consultations with nutrition counselors.

THE FOOD: The plan revolves around prepackaged "Jenny's Cuisine" that does your calorie counting, portion control, and nutrient balancing for you. The boxed meals are low in calories mainly because of their small portion sizes: A 3.5-ounce breakfast sandwich of scrambled eggs, ham, and cheddar is 200 calories; 4.8 ounces of battered fish and chips is 250 calories; and a 2.4-ounce slice of carrot cake is 190 calories. (For perspective, a PowerBar weighs 2.3 ounces.) Once members reach their goal weight, they have a four-week transition period during which they're given recipes for low-fat, high-fiber foods to help them shift from prepackaged meals to the real thing.

THE COST: In addition to the program cost (which, depending on the version you choose, ranges from a limited-time offer of under $50 for short-term membership to $399 for a one-year membership, plus unlimited annual renewals for $39), you have to pay $12 to $16 a day for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.

WHAT YOU GET FOR THE MONEY: Every level of membership buys you weekly individual, face-to-face meetings with consultants, 24-hour telephone and Web support, and personalized menu and exercise plans. And with the $399 program, the longer you're a member, the larger your Jenny's Cuisine discount.

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Jenny Craig has broadened its program to go far beyond calories in/calories out, says Hill. The company has recruited a scientific advisory board, used pedometers as a tool to motivate more sedentary members, and improved the quality of its food. On the flip side, maintaining weight loss may be a challenge once you start cooking for yourself again.

The Zone

THE GIST: This plan stemmed from another best-selling book and is based on author Barry Sears's claims that the right food ratio--40 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent fat--will regulate blood sugar levels and rev up the body's metabolism.

THE FOOD: Meals are mainly do-it-yourself (although select cities offer a delivery service of freshly made Zone meals), and a number of Zone recipe books are on the market. Dieters are taught how to visualize precise food combinations: A protein serving is the size of your palm; the other two-thirds of your plate should contain fruits and vegetables, excluding starches like potatoes and corn.

THE COST: $25 for the book, $4 a week for online recipes and support.

WHAT YOU GET FOR THE MONEY: Members have access to an online community of nutritionists and other Zoners but are left to sort through the meal planners, recipes, weight tracker, and e-mailed tips alone.

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: The Zone is better balanced than most of the very low-carb diets out there, but because you're eating fewer starchy foods, you may be a bit more sluggish on the treadmill. "I think the body runs most efficiently on carbohydrates," Hill says.--C.B.

Source Citation:Birnbaum, Cara. "The Weight Watchers secret of success: in a world where fad diets show up faster than you can say 'grapefruit and cabbage,' Weight Watchers doesn't promise miracles, but it does help women learn to eat right, regain their self-esteem, and find inspiration in community. Cara Birnbaum on how the little diet that could keeps chugging healthily along." O, The Oprah Magazine 6.10 (Oct 2005): 205(4). InfoTrac Pop Culture eCollection. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 20 Oct. 2009

Gale Document Number:A137713665

Disclaimer:This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

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