I know Weight Watchers by reputation. Though I have never personally tried their program, I have been witness to several family members take part in it, several times. Weight Watchers was founded in 1963 and Oprah is the current spokesperson which must count for something. It has a great reputation and I see a lot of positive talk about it on social media.
But I can’t help but be suspicious as to whether the program actually works. I consider a successful ‘diet’ (or weight loss method) one which works long term. Admittedly, the last time I witnessed someone go through the weight watchers program was about 15 years ago and I’m sure a lot has changed since then. But I remember thinking at the time that the point system was extremely flawed because it didn’t teach you anything about how to properly nourish your body. You could, in theory, save up your day’s points and just spend them on junk food (though I’m sure no one has ever done that! 😉).
Now I mentioned being suspicious of the program, but my family members who took part in it did actually lose weight! In fact, they mostly loved it! I even remember attending several meetings with them and the general atmosphere was positive (except perhaps for that horrible public weigh-in). However, I will never forget the times in meetings where people would come in, broken and ashamed, because they’d gained back some weight they’d lost. Worse still were those who’d lost a lot of weight, left the program, and now returned having regained it all and more.
It wasn’t just in the meetings that I was witness to this, but in my own family too. Weight lost, weight regained. Multiple times. This is the main reason I got into this industry and try to educate myself as best I could about diet, fitness and nutrition. Seeing my family members blame themselves for their failed diets. Seeing the shame rise as their self-confidence fell affected me deeply as a young girl. But before I’d even studied the subject, I felt instinctively that diets were wrong, they couldn’t work.
Again, I know weight watchers has changed a lot since then. I mean, 15-20 years ago is practically ancient history as far as diets go! I understand their new point system does take into account the nutritional density of foods. But that’s not my only issue with the program, of which the principles have ultimately stayed the same.
At some point last year I was reading a fantastic book, Secrets From The Eating Lab, by Professor Traci Mann. In this book, she had included the following quote, “Our members have historically demonstrated a consistent pattern of repeat enrolment over a number of years. On average… our members have enrolled in four separate program cycles”. The quote was from Weight Watcher’s International 2001 business plan. Now, this in itself is not exactly an admission of guilt. It doesn’t mean that weight watchers want their customers to fail does it?
In 2007 Weight Watchers conducted a 5 years study on the efficacy of their program.
The results showed that 2 years after completing the program, only 20% of people had maintained their goal weight. And this dropped to 16% after 5 years. Well those are quite sad statistics.
With such low success rates, how do Weight Watchers make their money? The former financial officer, Richard Samber, helpfully answered this question to the BBC, “It’s successful because the other 84% have to come back and do it again. That’s where your business comes from”.
“It’s successful because the other 84% have to come back and do it again. That’s where your business comes from” – Richard Samber, ex-financial officer for Weight Watchers International.
So why do we keep using Weight Watchers? Why do we keep going back to it after it fails us?
I’ve picked on Weight Watchers in this post because they’re so huge, but the reality is this applies to any of the big diets. The problem seems to be that they are like putting a bucket under a leaky roof. You’ll catch the water and stop the carpet getting wet, but at some point the bucket will fill up and start overflowing. Then you’ve got to quickly change the bucket to minimize damage, and pay closer attention to when it’s getting full again. Sometimes there will be more rain, and it’ll become more difficult to keep the bucket from overfilling. Other times there might be a draught and you forget about the bucket completely. Until suddenly it rains again and you’re reminded not to forget about the bucket. This is what dieting is. You have to constantly be switched on to it, paying attention to your food intake, keeping it below a certain level.
But by using the bucket, you’re not fixing the cause of the leak any more than a diet fixes the cause of carrying excess weight.
The weight loss approach that I believe does work, is figuring out the cause of carrying extra weight.
Is it emotional eating? Is it inactivity? Is it routine? Once we’ve figured this out we can start looking at how to tackle it. If we eat emotionally for example, we can look at finding healthier ways to manage difficult emotions such as through yoga or meditation. We can practise mindfulness. If inactivity is the root cause, then how can we incorporate more activity into our day? These solutions should be lifestyle changes, which we can incorporate over time, and which are sustainable in the long-term. Like the weight loss they aim to achieve. Sustainable long-term.
I would love to hear your experiences with Weight Watchers and other diets. Did it work for you? Did you regain weight? What do you think? Let me know in the comments!