Some lines on reading a Weight Watchers study.

So, the other night, I started reading this 2008 study, which looked at how well Weight Watchers Lifetime Members do at maintaining their weight loss for up to five years.

The first part of the paper, as usual, describes the set-up of the study, and the demographic details of the people who participated. This is a part of studies I always like a lot, because, if it’s an intervention study with both a treatment and control group, I like to see the wondrous effects of good randomization on the average profile of both groups. Because I am a nerd.

In this case, it’s not a treatment group vs. control group comparison, but a profile of your average Weight Watchers Lifetime Member, based on a nationwide sample. And here’s what we get:

(The red markings are mine.)

So, based on this sample, the average Weight Watchers Lifetime Member is a married female, 45 years or older, who started WW weighing 165 lbs. with a BMI of 27.6 (in the overweight range.) She has an income of at least $50,000 a year.

You probably already know that people with BMIs in the overweight range have the lowest relative risk of death:

Overweight was associated with a slight reduction in mortality … relative to the normal weight category.

…and that women tend to live longer than men:

Today, males have greater mortality than females throughout the world. The very few exceptions are in southern Asia where it has been demonstrated that females receive less food and health care than males. With relatively equal treatment, males universally experience greater mortality than females.

…and that people with more money tend to have better health:

The relationship between socioeconomic status and health outcomes is one of the most persistent themes in the epidemiological literature. The strong and growing evidence that higher social and economic status … are associated with better health has led most researchers to conclude that these factors are fundamental determinants of health.

…and that the average income of Weight Watchers Lifetime Members ($50,000 and up) is roughly at or above the median household income for the United States in 2008:

Median income (dollars) 52,175

…and that a higher BMI actually has a protective effect on mortality as people get older.

Which forces me to conclude that the people who become “successful” Lifetime Members of Weight Watchers? Not only are they not very fat to begin with, but also have few of the risk factors that contribute, systemically, to poor health and premature death.

So, for the purposes of this study, at least, we can dispense with the notion that people join Weight Watchers not to diet (since the word “diet” is now outré in diet advertising) — heavens no, but for the good of their health, darling.

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48 Comments

  1. Posted February 2, 2010 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    And how many of those women were successful at losing enough weight to take them out of the overweight category, and keeping that weight off for more than 5 years? Want to bet it was way less than 5%? Because otherwise, why would they be “Lifetime” members? No need to keep going back, and back, and back, if you can lose it and keep it off, now is there?
    Which is why I stopped dieting and started living, years ago, before Weight Watchers ever thought of using that for a slogan.

    • Posted February 2, 2010 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

      That’s the part I’ll get to next, hopefully, if I can stay awake and concentrate long enough to read the whole thing. I have a very short attention-span lately.

  2. Posted February 2, 2010 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    Michelle–
    Could you please explain to me what “lower mortality” means? After all, we all die one day! Really, I’ve been meaning to understand this for ages and I know that you, my wonderful nerdy friend, will enlighten me.

    • Posted February 2, 2010 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

      Oh, it just means a lower probability of dropping dead on the spot, right now (or within a defined time frame — like if a study was carried on for a period of one year, a person’s risk of mortality would be how likely they were to drop dead within that year.)

      It doesn’t mean your risk of dying, eventually, someday since that will obviously happen to everyone at some point!

      It should actually be “lower mortality risk” since there is no such thing as lower mortality — everyone is 100% mortal.

      (Except for vampires and zombies. But they don’t comment here very often anyway.)

      • Daniel M.
        Posted February 3, 2010 at 11:13 am | Permalink

        There was an awesome the onion article:
        http://www.theonion.com/content/news/world_death_rate_holding_steady_at

        Besides you forgot about Liches – if i lived in D&D universe i would definitely be one!

        • Posted February 3, 2010 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

          You are such a total nerd!

          • Daniel M.
            Posted February 3, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

            Yes i am!
            what do you expect from a guy looking like this anyway :D
            http://www.srcf.ucam.org/~dm510/me.jpg

            And doing engineering at uni…
            But as the TShirt said – the world does revolve around us – we pick the coordinate system

            Besides i think you agree that the sentence “Death, a metabolic affliction causing a total shutdown of life systems is the #1 cause of fatalities worldwide”
            was precious!

  3. Posted February 2, 2010 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    I actually wrote a short post about WW today after a classmate admitted to me that he’s on their program, despite knowing the dangers of weight cycling and that his desire to lose weight is more about aesthetics than health.

    I’m actually a lifetime member myself, though I’m now at least 30 lbs above goal, and far younger than their average. I’m also single, a student (i.e. not employed), and don’t make anywhere near $50,000/year. It makes me sad now to realize that I spent most of my teens and early 20s struggling against a weight that was perfectly healthy (my BMI probably averaged 26-27 during that time) and that my blood pressure is actually higher than it was, probably from the weight cycling…

    • Posted February 2, 2010 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

      I read your post, and I have been in that same situation so many times before.

      I think people often lose weight — underneath all their desire for health and aesthetic results — for a very simple, very unstandable reason: they want people to treat them better. And they want to believe, themselves, that they are worthy of being treated better.

      Which, of course, if our culture wasn’t so messed-up about weight, wouldn’t be an issue in the first place.

      • Posted February 2, 2010 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

        Absolutely. Attitudes towards diverse body sizes definitely need to change…obviously, since that’s a large part of why we all write! :)

        I go back and forth about how I’m treated because of my weight since I’m in that weird inbetween space. I think the negative treatment is more subtle, though it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

  4. Posted February 2, 2010 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    So, I feel like this tells us a lot about WW marketing – and I don’t necessarily mean that as a negative thing. To put it one way, they know who their target audience is and how to appeal to them, and then set them up to succeed. It’s funny, that could be a good or a bad thing depending on the tone of voice in which you read it. Heh. At any rate, I’m really curious about what you think of the actual content of their diet/plan/whathaveyou, because it doesn’t sound all that bad to me, in the grand scheme of diets. It doesn’t cut out anything, right, the gist of the points system is that you end up eating mostly fruits and vegetables, but still other things too – fine, right? Of course the fact that it’s a diet and weight cycling, etc, is still a problem to me… And now I’m babbling.

    • Posted February 2, 2010 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

      I feel like this tells us a lot about WW marketing

      It certainly does.

      I’m really curious about what you think of the actual content of their diet/plan/whathaveyou, because it doesn’t sound all that bad to me, in the grand scheme of diets.

      So, it’s basically a calorie reduction diet. Yes, they give some thought to the food guide and tell people to get their servings of x, y, and z — but the bottom line is, it’s an energy-restricted diet. And it does have the potential to become very nutritionally unbalanced if someone decides to, say, save up all their Points for a chocolate cake or something, and then lets themselves eat little else for the day.

      (Of course, I should add the caveat here that it is the long-term that counts for dietary balance, and that one day doesn’t make or break you. Still, if you weren’t on a diet, you could have as much chocolate cake as you wanted, AND eat three decent meals, which sounds like a better deal to me, nutritionally.)

      Weight Watchers has somehow spun a very effective marketing campaign, positioning themselves as the “non-diet” or even just the “not-so-bad diet,” to the point where even in FA circles, people end up having conversations about WW not being so bad.

      To me, purposely inducing a negative energy balance — whether it’s by cutting out carbs, or eating only cabbage soup, or just reducing your calories while attempting to get adequate nutrition — is a problem. And for any diet, no matter what its MO, negative energy balance is the entire goal.

      And negative energy balance, by definition, is an unbalanced nutritional state.

      There are lots of diets out there that will produce weight loss without inducing any kind of acute nutrient deficiency, or favouring one macronutrient over another — Weight Watchers is not at all unique in that regard. In fact, they are exactly the same as every other diet, except they’ve eschewed the fancy window-dressing of pseudoscience or nutritional gimmicks that usually covers for the boring old calorie-deficit mechanism producing the weight loss.

      The thing is, just about anyone can lose weight in the short term by being placed in negative energy balance (aka “more calories going out than coming in.”) And this is where people like to jump up and down and cite the First Law of Thermodynamics like they’re fucking Einstein or something.

      The problem comes in with 1) where your body chooses to cannibalize itself for the energy it’s not getting from food (because it doesn’t just raid your fat stores — it uses your muscles and your organs as well), and 2) what happens long-term when your protective homeostatic mechanisms kick in to try to preserve your weight. Because they will — negative energy balance is not a comfortable state for the body to be in for any length of time, and it will fight to regain homeostasis. And that’s not even getting into the crazymaking-ness, or the risk of triggering an underlying susceptibility to an eating disorder that comes with ANY kind of weight-loss diet.

      When it comes to all those things, WW carries all the same risks as any other diet. And it is, in fact, a diet, despite what their marketing would love for us to believe.

      I’ll leave you also with this question: is it actually profitable for WW to produce permanent weight loss for its members? What would be their motivation to do so, if they could ensure themselves repeat business for years to come?

      I’m planning a bigger post on this later, but for now I hope this makes sense!

      • Kate
        Posted February 3, 2010 at 12:24 am | Permalink

        I know a group of women, all in the 60 to 65 range who have done WW several times in the past and one of the ladies said she just started it up. So I asked her how many points she gets, she said 18, but she loses faster is she keeps it 15. Each point is about 50 calories so that’s 750 – 900 calories a day! I think that might be starvation. To be completely fair, this particular woman is very short, possibly in the 4’10” range, but still that’s not a lot of calories.

        • hsofia
          Posted February 3, 2010 at 4:48 am | Permalink

          My daughter is 31.5 inches tall (she is a young toddler) and weighs just under 23lbs. She eats about 900 calories a day. Pediatricians will tell you that a growing tot needs that much (yes, you can Google it). Yet a grown human being working full time and managing a family (according to these demographics) plus getting in her activity points, is supposed to eat that much?

          I did WW years ago when I started putting on weight after buying a car (prior to that I’d walked/biked to work), and I did lose some weight on it, but not until I started exercising 90 minutes a day 5-6 days a week. When it came to food intake, I “cheated” frequently. The one good thing I got out of it was gauging my hunger levels before eating.

          • Posted February 3, 2010 at 6:35 am | Permalink

            This kind of reminds me of the rat studies I read about from the 70s and 80s, where they found that one of the few ways to actually move (lower) an animal’s set-point was to increase its activity (and, oddly, to increase its food intake at the same time, iirc.)

            And, you’ll note that, based on recent research in humans (reported in the media as DON’T BOTHER EXERCIZZING COS YOU WON’T LOSE WATE LARD-BUTT), even that produces a relatively small amount of weight loss.

          • hsofia
            Posted February 3, 2010 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

            “reported in the media as DON’T BOTHER EXERCIZZING COS YOU WON’T LOSE WATE LARD-BUTT)”

            Right! Now buy this pill!

            I have a body that responds almost immediately to exercise. One or two days’ worth of exercise and I start seeing new muscles. It is pretty incredible. What this means is that there is a greater incentive for me to “work out” because I SEE results so quickly. For my husband, however, getting “ripped” is nearly impossible. Even working out three days a week with a personal trainer for 6 months didn’t produce that muscular look always being sold to us. (He did, however, get very strong.) But for him, it is easier to watch what he eats to lose weight than it is to exercise. Plus, he hates almost all exercise, whereas it relaxes me and gives me a high.

          • hsofia
            Posted February 3, 2010 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

            My point being that body diversity is real!

      • Gennivre
        Posted February 3, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink

        Such a wonderful, clear explanation of the problem with dieting. I can’t wait for the bigger post!

  5. Lisablue
    Posted February 2, 2010 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    I have nothing intelligent to add to this post, although I’m not surprised at the breakdown of their membership…

    all I wanted to say was that my mother sent me to weight watchers when I was in university. She bought me 10 sessions or whatever. I don’t believe I went after the 10 sessions. I certainly didn’t go for all that long.

    btw – I am 5 ft 8 inches. I weighed 160 lbs when she sent me.

    • Kate
      Posted February 3, 2010 at 12:25 am | Permalink

      I went once to WW, also in college. They weighed me and said I should weigh 110 (I’m 5’4″, but if you ever saw me, you’d know I’ll never weigh 110 lbs, not ever) and I never went back.

      • Posted February 3, 2010 at 6:25 am | Permalink

        I’m around your height, and the last time I weighed 110 lbs was when I was about 10 years old. (And I wasn’t a fat kid. My family is…structurally large…in a strange way, even though we’re not all tall. My head, hands and feet, for example, are huge for a woman my height.)

        The idea that I should weigh anywhere near that amount as a grown woman just doesn’t sit well with me.

        • Kate
          Posted February 4, 2010 at 1:05 am | Permalink

          My mom is the same height as me and weighs less than 100 lbs.

          I was always told growing up that women should be tiny, but it just wasn’t in the cards for me, I’m large framed and muscular by nature, I was never going to be tiny and the endless pursuit of that has dominated my life.

          • Posted February 16, 2010 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

            I’m also 5’4″ and so is my mom. She’s not as tiny as your mother, but was between 115 and 120 lbs in college, whereas I was between 150 and 160 lbs. A huge struggle for me has always been accepting that I simply have a larger, more muscular build than my mother and will never be small or delicate in the way she is.

            Also, I was 112 lbs. in 5th grade (so around age 10 or 11), but wasn’t at my full adult height by that point…

  6. Eve
    Posted February 3, 2010 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    You said in response to a comment that the body will cannibalize its organs and muscles as well as fat when someone is in an energy deficit. Can you explain that a little more? Isn’t the whole point of fat to store up energy in case of famine later?

    • Daniel M.
      Posted February 3, 2010 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      I believe i can answer this as well.
      The body needs other things besides energy, and besides muscles consume the most.
      So in a case of famine the body will use stuff like muscles for protein and skelet for calcium, which has an added effect that it decreases the energetical needs, so the longer you starve the better you get at it – you need less energy each day.
      If you use the muscles extensively, it is less so, as the body figures they need to be doing something.
      This is precisely the reason for yoyo effect.

      • wriggles
        Posted February 4, 2010 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

        This is precisely the reason for yoyo effect.

        I’m not getting you, what is the reason for the yo yo effect?

        • Daniel M.
          Posted February 4, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

          The fact that the starving body burns up muscle, which is one of the main energy consumers.
          Therefore, when you stop dieting , even neglecting other mechanisms, your body needs much less energy to function.
          It is like if you have chickens and they need some grain. One day you run out and you decide to give them nothing. Eventually they start fighting in between and cannibalism breaks out – maybe only 8/10 survive, the others get pecked and eaten. Now you start giving them grain again in the same amounts, but they each get more grain as there is less of them around ..

          • wriggles
            Posted February 5, 2010 at 11:34 am | Permalink

            I think I get what you are saying, but I’d say what you’re describing is more responsible for the way weight loss tends to diminish and peter out, the famous ‘plateau state’.

            What undermines your rationale in terms of the cause of rebound is contained in what you say here;

            Now you start giving them grain again in the same amounts, but they each get more grain as there is less of them around ..

            Why the same amount, when there are less chickens?

            Because your body decides it’s energy requirements, not your conscious mind, when you use the latter to try and usurp the role of the former, you merely subvert it’s intent, you don’t change it.

            In the mean time, your body is registering it’s distress and doing everything it can to get you back on it’s course.

            When you can no longer sustain your WLD efforts, you revert back to that course.

            That’s rebound, and that’s why in essence dieting doesn’t work, it doesn’t alter that course, at source, it merely attempts to correct it after the fact at the weakest point of the process. The conscious parts of our mind.

    • Posted February 3, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      Certainly. I should actually check my notes so I make sure I’m explaining it correctly and in enough detail. But the short version is: Your body needs glucose to function. Muscle is preferentially used as fuel because protein is more easily converted to glucose in the body (as well as, like Daniel said, being jettisoned because it is a more energy-demanding tissue to maintain.) Fat, while providing a long-term energy storage option in case of starvation, doesn’t convert to glucose at all (it converts to another product that can be used as a substitute fuel, but it’s messy and leaves byproducts in the body.)

  7. Posted February 3, 2010 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    I love this post. I always wonder about those Lifetime members. I can’t tell you how many times I want to cringe when I hear those words. I’m not a fan of diet programs. At all. Thanks for putting this out there. I’m curious to see what comes next.

  8. Jerome
    Posted February 3, 2010 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    I did WW for the first time at the age of EIGHT (no, I am not making this up…I adore my parents but they are both very fit and beyond weight-obsessed), and was a lifetime member not once, not twice, but three times. Before I turned 17. Then I became anorexic, and here I am at 32 still trying to crawl out of that miserable rabbit hole.

    So, I’m no fan of WW.

    I think that their diet itself is probably nutritionally sound and that they are probably the least-worst of the commercial diet programs, but they have a special way of making you lose touch with reality almost completely until your entire life is focused on food and eating. I also frequently wonder what my “natural” weight would be if I hadn’t had involuntary calorie restriction imposed on me as a child.

    • Kate
      Posted February 4, 2010 at 12:56 am | Permalink

      My husband and I were talking about our first diets and I remember as clear as day being on the Atkins diet in the second grade. My mother and less so my dad were OBSESSED with my weight. I also know the Atkins diet wasn’t my first diet. I’ve starved myself, I’ve eaten compulsively and I’m just now beginning to figure out how to properly feed myself.

      I’m also just dealing with the anger inside me toward my parents, but that’s a whole separate issue. I’m also wondering what size I’d be if just left to my own devices because I learned at a really young age that life was feast or famine, so if I a lot of food around I’d eat it all.

      • hsofia
        Posted February 4, 2010 at 3:51 am | Permalink

        Oh my goodness. I thought people putting their kids on diets was a newer phenomenon. This is effing scary!

        • Posted February 4, 2010 at 8:48 am | Permalink

          I know, right?

          If you haven’t read Laura Fraser’s book Losing It, you should. She describes being put on a diet as a child, and subsequently developed bulimia. Scary stuff.

    • Posted February 16, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      I also frequently wonder what my “natural” weight would be if I hadn’t had involuntary calorie restriction imposed on me as a child.

      So do I. I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I first joined WW, but it was somewhere between 12 and 15. I suspect I’d be at least 20 lbs lighter than I am now had I never been on a diet and had instead been taught to eat intuitively from a young age.

  9. Christina
    Posted February 3, 2010 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    One of the reasons strength training and adequate protein intake are recommended during weight loss is to help prevent loss of lean body mass. Excluding extreme calorie restriction, organs are not significantly affected in moderate weight loss. Higher body weights can affect organs such as increasing strain on the heart and have been linked to fatty liver. Gradual weight loss with sustainable healthy eating habits and moderate exercise is generally considered to have more benefits than cons.

    • Posted February 3, 2010 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

      Hasn’t weight loss also been linked to fatty liver?

      A lot of health issues linked to obesity could very easily be attributed to dieting itself. Since fat people are more likely to try to lose weight and all.

      ETA: Fatty liver is actually associated with insulin resistance. Which, itself, can cause increased fat storage, i.e. obesity.

      Gradual weight loss with sustainable healthy eating habits and moderate exercise is generally considered to have more benefits than cons.

      And I know that this is generally considered to be the case. But I respectfully disagree, since 1) sustained, permanent weight loss has a dismal success rate to begin with, and 2) since there are other risks associated with weight loss itself that are often ignored in favour of hoping weight loss will cure every other health condition a fat person might be experiencing.

      Even if a person does not lose significant amounts of lean body mass during weight loss (and I still believe this is a risk that anyone faces when pursuing weight loss), there are psychological effects to consider, and the physical effects of weight cycling, which is ultimately the most likely outcome. Not to mention the fact that focusing on weight loss, in and of itself, shifts a person’s focus onto weight, which is an imprecise (and some would argue ridiculous) proxy for health.

      If health is what you’re after, then do healthy things, and look at direct measures of health. Don’t substitute a focus on weight loss for a focus on health.

  10. Christina
    Posted February 4, 2010 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Hi, I fully agree with focusing on overall health rather than weight, and that preventing additional weight loss is often a more realistic goal and avoids the negative impacts of yo yo dieting. Here is a good summary about that: http://www.drsharma.ca/preventing-weight-gain-is-the-first-step-in-obesity-management.html
    Obesity is linked to fatty liver disease and weight loss helps improve the condition
    http://www.drsharma.ca/obesity-weight-loss-reduces-liver-fat.html
    I wrote because I thought it might be misleading to say that during weight loss the body preferentially breaks down muscle and organ tissue over fat. If this was the case then the Biggest Loser contestants would have significant organ damage and have lost a lot of muscle, when in fact their lean body mass increases because of the exercise, and fat mass is lost.

    • Posted February 4, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      You’re right, and it’s a good point to make. All I’m saying is, it’s a risk. And while adding activity to prevent lean tissue loss is a good idea, and apparently helps, it’s still basically a harm-reduction strategy. Which means, there is a potential harm there.

      Additionally, measuring overall lean body mass /= measuring potential loss of organ mass. Now, I don’t know *for certain* that organs are affected on the typical contemporary weight loss regimens, but it’s a possibility, and thus a risk, given what we know happens during simple starvation and semi-starvation.

      And thanks for the links — Dr. Sharma writes some good stuff.

      ETA: Sorry, I don’t mean to keep adding stuff, but this question is interesting to me. Anyway, it’s important to remember that body composition is not fixed — it’s actually a dynamic process. Even when that body composition remains stable over years, it’s a dynamic equilbrium. Meaning, things are broken down and replaced and being remodelled, constantly. Weight loss is no exception — body tissues are just being broken down in greater proportion than they are being added from what you eat. And, due to biochemical necessity, some of those tissues ARE going to be lean body mass, even if you’re eating enough protein to replace the gross mass. If the idea is to strengthen your organs AND your muscles, without facing the risk of loss, why not just exercise without inducing a calorie deficit? That will build lean mass, as well, but I think it better balances the risks.

  11. Posted February 4, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    The study jives with what I’ve observed. While I was looking for people to relate to my need to lose around 100lbs? The leaders for the most part had dropped 10-30lbs while being stay-at-home parents to teens.

    It was hard to relate.

  12. Posted February 4, 2010 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Weight Watchers Online has been, for me, the antidote to perfectionistic dieting and obsessive exercise, to disordered attitudes. Now interested in nutrition, in nourishing my body whilst also reducing my mass (I have more than one hundred pounds to lose too, Running Large), Weight Watchers has given me a structure, eliciting a sense of balance and calm that frees me up to trust my own intuition when eating, to eat until I’m sated and more when needed, basing most of my food choices on the Canada Food Guide (while indulging my desires, my cravings for good chocolate, dry cider, juicy burgers — in portions that allow me to savour whatever food rather than in extravagant sick-making binges). Now mine are gentle efforts at exercise (walking around the city, Sadie Nardini’s Yoga for Bigger Bodies). Weight Watchers is a system that values easy exertions, thus my adopted notion: eating to live, rather than exercising to eat. My weight loss has been within medically advised parameters: one to two pounds a week. I really feel I’ve crafted a lifestyle using Weight Watchers as a tool. If I stop using this tool, or the skills I’ve developed doing so, will I yo-yo? Yes. I have fat cells from having been as big that make weight gain easy. Health, emotional and physical, is a result of consistent efforts; it’s a practice.

    From this perspective, based on my experience using Weight Watchers, I’m stunned at the extremism in some of these posts. From a psychoanalytic perspective (though I am not a psychoanalyst), such extremism is, perhaps, projection on the part of commenters. Weight Watchers doesn’t advocate extremism, such as eating fewer points than are suggested each day, each week. In fact, Weight Watchers cautions members not to restrict caloric intake at such a rate, to eat all the points alloted them, warning of exactly those outcomes the Fat Nutritionist details in her responses. And Weight Watchers doesn’t determine one’s goal weight, urging an unhealthy poundage. I’ve decided that. (And I opt for tiny increments, ten pounds, twenty at a time, feeling my way down, as if with fingers extended in the dark, to a weight that feels good on my large bones.) As I understand, if I were to let Weight Watchers determine my goals, the healthy weights proposed for a person of my height are based on medical charts featuring a large (30+ pound) range of possibilities. As I understand, one becomes a Lifetime Member when one maintains the goal weight she or he has chosen.

    Importantly, I didn’t decide to “diet” because I hate myself: I decided to nourish myself in these ways, using Weight Watchers as a guide, when I did the deep work of dealing with my own emotions, my past, and ceased to punish myself using food.

    Fat Nutritionist, yours is a blog I’m keen to visit often. Your pieces are always thought-provoking, often inspiring and ever engagingly well-written. I’m struck by your sometimes messy honesty. And I don’t appreciate these qualities less when I don’t agree — in fact, I think I value these qualities more in instances like this. Thank you, sincerely.

    Oh, and statistically I’m not on the normal curve for Weight Watchers members: I’m 32, un(der)employed, with much more weight to lose than just a few pounds.

    • Posted February 5, 2010 at 3:47 am | Permalink

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Sarah.

      I do understand that putting structure around our eating often helps to organize our nutrition and our self-care — in fact, that kind of structure has proved crucial to my own eating habits, as well as what I teach my clients (that is, to have discrete meals at set intervals.)

      I have no doubt that there are positive aspects to what Weight Watchers teaches, depending, of course, on the individual. People often take positive lessons away from various weight-loss diets — whether it’s having tried new foods, or having eaten more fruits and vegetables, or started to exercise. Those things are arguably positive (though I still think it is harder for habits like those to stick when they are made contingent on an external weight goal, rather than intrinsic motivation.)

      What I continue to see problematic with Weight Watchers, and all weight-loss diets, is the idea that adults must be given an external limit to how much they can eat, rather than trusting entirely to their internal limits and preferences. The body knows how to regulate itself, if we’d only let it.

      Dietary restriction of any sort brings with it the risk of harm, inherently. Now, you can of course compensate for and balance those risks, but it is disingenuous to deny that they exist in the first place, and that is what I often see happening with weight loss apologia. Especially considering that the health effects that people are hoping to gain from weight-loss dieting can be achieved without setting weight loss as the explicit goal, (thus avoiding the risks of dietary restriction at the outset) I do not think that the benefits are worth the risks.

      And probably just as many people could share their individual stories of being significantly harmed from such diets, just as you were helped. Their stories are no less valid.

      • Posted February 6, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        Oh, yes, I’m quite conscious that mine is just one narrative, that there are as many stories, that there is as much anecdotal evidence, as there are individuals, and that each of these is very valid.

        And, I’m not a Weight Watchers, or diet, apologist. (I don’t think I’m so accused, but to be clear.) I commented to offer a perspective neglected in this thread, that of a person using Weight Watchers to create what she feels is a safe structure to reclaim her balance and health–not to dismiss others’ experience or insights. But, I do, I admit, have difficulty with comments based on simplistic black and white, political either/or, easy-peasy right or wrong thinking rather than the integrative, nuanced both/and thinking that allows for the conciliation of supposedly competing theories and biases. And, I do think comments marked by the simplistic often are based in projection.

        Too, I do believe it’s possible to eat intuitively within the structure of Weight Watchers. That’s been my experience, though I am guessing it doesn’t fit within the formal parameters of what intuitive eating is because Weight Watchers is the structure I choose.

        I believe, too, that for me (emphasis on ‘for me’, thus also to emphasize perhaps not for you, whomever you may be who reads this sentence and finds it vexing) to carry excessive weight constitutes potential for harm to my health greater than the harm associated with weight loss. And, I don’t think that my belief that this is so is based in social indoctrination or shame, that I need to reject these notions entirely, be radical, to be whole. I don’t think it’s so simple.

        I agree (as you note in your response Michelle) that the risks, the harm, inherent in weight loss can be “compensated for and balanced”.

        To find the balance between extremes: A recent study that got much media attention suggested that extreme caloric restriction lessens the likelihood of debilitating disease. A link: http://pubs.acs.org/cen/science/87/8731sci2.html. (Admittedly, that’s not a link to the study, but to a news piece.)Michelle, I’m curious how you would respond to this science.

        (And, for the record, I don’t have a stake in these scientific claims, don’t agree or disagree. If anything, I’m terrified they justify my step-sister’s apparent eating disorder: she’s a cancer researcher accustomed to making these claims to justify what appears to be an undiagnosed form of anorexia. But, in posting this link, asking this question, I’m merely curious how this science might be received by a person working within the paradigm you’ve claimed, Michelle.)

        Finally, Deeleigh, you may determine a thirty pound range of healthy weights to be restrictive. And, of course, that’s for you to decide for you. I don’t find it so. Even on my large-boned five-eight frame, thirty pounds is significant, makes a difference in how I feel: how tired, how well. I appreciate that the set point, the weight at which one experiences balance, stability and stasis, is individual, though.

      • Lampdevil
        Posted February 12, 2010 at 8:59 am | Permalink

        Structure is what I’ve found within Weight Watchers. And it’s structure that has been helpful to me. The little system of jotting things down and scribbling down points at least makes me consious of the things I consume. I was, evidently, eating more than I really needed to be full and content. It gives me a context and a guideline and an understanding of the things I’m eating. It lets me recognize my internal limit. I didn’t really have a good understanding of this stuff before I started. I’m not deprived, I’m not unhappy, and if I want to eat some goddamned cake I’ll eat some goddamned cake, screw the points.

        That said… I’m still not a wholehearted gung-ho Weight Watchers booster. It’s damned expensive, and they really REALLY want you to spend your money on their ooky packaged foods and their scales and clickers and tickers and counters and crap. It’s no wonder that the dedicated members have that much average income. And as kind and fluffy and friendly that the official company line is, strange and unpleasant things tend to crop up within the meetings. While I find myself using the WW stuff as a framework to hang up my HAES beliefs and my desire to try more interesting foods, other people see it as a good place to hang serious restrictions and deprivations. Or to hate themselves for some percieved ‘weakness’. A seed has to grow in the soil that it’s planted in. With the way that society messes with our ability to eat and our self-esteem, is it no wonder that there are so many bad WW stories?

        This is all something hard for me to actually post about, within the realm of the Fat-O-Sphere. I mean… I came to terms with myself and I like myself and I’m cool with my fatness and HAES! HAES! …but here I am, on my knees like I’m at the electric confessional. I’m telling myself that I’m treating this as a science experiment. A big chunk of my friends are On The Plan, and… it looked… interesting, watching them. I’ve never done this kind of thing before, and I want to see how my body reacts. I’m maintaining, even as my friends gush at me for “how good” I’m being or looking, that the moment the whole thing starts to piss me off or make me feel unwell, I’m quitting.

        • Posted February 12, 2010 at 10:54 am | Permalink

          Structure is the thing I suspect WW is most helpful for — we were talking about that a bit here.

    • Posted February 5, 2010 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      Sarah- Do you really think that a 30 pound range of healthy weights for everyone of the same height is a “large range?” I don’t. In fact, I believe that each individual person, at any given time in her life, probably has a 30 pound range that her weight will tend to fall into if she’s healthy. I think that range changes with age, and I think it varies between individuals by hundreds of pounds.

      For example, a 5′-7″ tall person might have 200 pounds as the center point of their healthy weight range. Another might be at a healthy weight at 130, and another at 300. It all depends on their genetic makeup, habits, dieting history, and other aspects of their environment. The way you figure out what a healthy weight is for you is to adopt habits that make you feel strong and energetic. The weight that puts you at is healthy for you.

      Yeah, I know. Radical. No diet company would agree with me.

    • Posted February 16, 2010 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      As I understand, one becomes a Lifetime Member when one maintains the goal weight she or he has chosen.

      Lifetime membership is reached when one maintains within 2 lbs. above (or any amount below) goal weight for, I believe, 6 weeks. That is not particularly demonstrative of actual long term weight maintenance.

      I don’t hate Weight Watchers, though I’m not someone who does well with that kind of structure (I have authority issues), but becoming a lifetime member isn’t indicative of whether or not a person will ultimately keep weight off long term – at least in my experience.

  13. Lyndsay
    Posted February 11, 2010 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    Maybe weight watchers might be useful for people who actually feel like they can’t control what they eat? Like they know they would feel more energetic if they ate fewer desserts but they can’t resist? Still, I feel like if desserts were seen more as just something that tastes good rather than something guilt-inducing, they might be easier to resist because we often want what we “can’t” have. I don’t buy very many high sugar things but if I have the time and energy to bake something (not that often), then I eat as much of it as I want.

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