Weight Watchers is an institution. For almost five decades, it's been seen as the sane alternative to the dump truck of more intense dieting programs that surround us. Unlike incredibly restrictive programs such as Jenny Craig and Nutrisystem, which include their own chemical-death meals in Lilliputian portions, or fad diets like paleo-Atkins-South Beach and the incomprehensible cleanse varietals, Weight Watchers is downright free-spirited. The most socially-acceptable of all restricted eating plans, Weight Watchers shines bright as a beacon of hope in a greasy sea of Dexatrim and Shake Weights.
For many years, I drank that point-laden Kool-Aid.
I went to my first Weight Watchers meeting when I was 12*. I attended with my mom because she always wanted to lose weight, and I was a fat kid, so it made sense. Of course, I'd been on other diets before, but this one was different, this time I would succeed through six easy meals a day and a healthy new interest in jogging. The weekly
exercise in terror meeting involved sneaking into their offices in a local mall and praying none of my classmates saw me. I was already a target for ridicule because of my chub-a-lub status (technical term), and I didn't want to add fuel to the fat fire. Then, I'd strip nearly naked to stand on the scale, hoping against hope that I'd lost at least a ¼ of a pound. If I did, a special pride washed over me as if I'd just scored a date with Jake Ryan on the same day I was elected prom queen of the universe. If I gained, I was worse than Linda in Judy Blume's Blubber.
Over the years, Weight Watchers (WW or dub-dub, for our purposes) has changed and evolved its calorie measurement system, and a couple days ago they announced their latest iteration. Out with the old ways to restrict calories, in with the new ways to restrict calories! Actually, no, the new plan, dubbed Weight Watchers 360, is pretty much almost exactly the same as the last time I attended — "Members will still continue track their food intake with PointsPlus values — numbers assigned to foods based on the content of protein, fiber, carbohydrates and fat," — with a few more add-ons to purchase. Of course.
The new plan includes an "optional physical activity monitor, called ActiveLink, which costs $40 plus a $5 monthly charge to convert physical activities into PointsPlus values." So, uh, a glorified pedometer for $40? And then there's a bunch of other stuff that's just like the program before — focusing on portion sizes, food environments, etc. Revolutionary! Or, you know, same ol' tips, shiny new expensive package. A brand new way to feel shitty about how much you eat and what you look like — just what America has been crying out for.
The points system is a novel idea, but it's flawed, as are many aspects of the WW experience.
After finishing college, I moved back in with my parents, trying to figure out what was next. Since I wasn't really looking for a job (depression), I passed my time walking dogs at the local shelter and attending Weight Watchers meetings. I went with another friend, also an unemployed recent college grad, and we were committed — I mean, we didn't have jobs or any other prospects in our lives. Dieting was like, our thing.
Points, at first, were a fun game to follow, and they did make me more aware of the amount of vegetables and healthy foods I was consuming. Just like in my middle-school WW years, I carefully controlled my caloric intake, I joined Jazzercise (which, to this day, I love — fit is it!), and I ate Weight Watchers-sanctioned aspartame gummies (1 point, entire package, ingredients unpronounceable) nearly constantly. Fuck an apple, those fools were two points, and points were valuable, like precious gold. Or something even better because you can't eat gold.
My meeting leader during this time, I'll call her Nancy, was a special sort of charismatic. She was so fun, happily admitting to drinking away all her points. Since she was at a very low weight, Nancy was allotted the fewest points a person could
eat chug — at the time, it was 18. With each point equating to roughly 50 calories (per the commonly accepted math in my group), that's about 900 calories a day. Many veggies were zero points back then, so it's possible you would eat more calories than that, but even at say, 1,100 a day, that's not very much food. Or, er, booze.
All of Nancy's clothes were custom tailored to within an inch of her life — she'd worked very hard to lose those 40 pounds, and it was not coming back. She had no control over the room, which was dominated by tales of disordered eating — one member liked to talk about how her weight loss secret was to fry up a plate of ground beef each day and eat her way through it, another sobbed through 40-minute tales of her conservative families cruelty toward her gay nephew. Nancy would attempt to right the ship, steering the conversation back to the weekly discussion topic, but because the group was more powerful than she was, she'd usually give up and go help at the checkout table. I had no problem with this because I needed to buy more 1-point gummies the second after the meeting was over — I'd starved myself up until weigh-in and I needed to eat.
I lost about 30 pounds that second time at WW, and then my weight plateaued, and I was so hungry that I frequently dreamt of food. I also got a job, more friends, and my interest in hearing tales of ground beef binges and red wine dinners waned. Tracking points obsessively, a very necessary thing for long-term success, became tedious and made me feel obsessive. I often felt like I was literally starving, and no amount of zero-point celery could ever satiate me. Yes, I was eating the right amount of points, I was following the program to the letter, and yet, I never felt like it was enough — and it ate up (har) incredible amounts of time and energy.
And there were other issues with the Weight Watchers meetings. There were the women who presented, at least to me, as being socially acceptable weights. I sat next to a few of them, and they shared with me the pain of trying to lose the "last five pounds". Anyone who's ever been to a WW meeting will let you know that this person is a common fixture. While perhaps not technically underweight, and you can't tell anything by looking at a person, I'd find it highly unlikely that these people needed to lose weight for medical reasons.
Another odd, terrible facet of the WW experience would be the children I saw at the meetings. In Nancy's meetings, there was one absolutely adorable girl who looked about ten or eleven. Each week she was quite literally shoved into the meeting by her yoga pants-sporting mom, who sat in the back and played with her phone all meeting. I also saw a mother raise her daughter's hand for her — a girl no more than twelve years old — volunteering the child to talk about how her week went. The worst part, nobody ever stopped this from happening.
To be a WW leader, you must be within a few pounds of goal weight. To stay that close to a specific weight takes a certain level of commitment that might read as... well, a little unhinged. I had a leader explicitly state that the reason she became one was because it forced her to keep the weight off. This is the same woman who looked forward to family camp each year, not only because of the time she got to spend with her kids, but because she also got to prove her resolve by resisting the scrumptious family camp pudding. You see, family camp pudding is her absolute favorite, and she didn't touch it. Resolve. Her starting weight? Twenty pounds heavier than her goal weight.
The reason I'm so familiar with my leader's weights is that they were beaten into my head each meeting — it must be something that WW pushes them to share constantly. I can't tell you how many pictures I saw of "fat Nancy", looking nearly exactly the same but with bigger boobs and a larger ass.
But perhaps the biggest problem is that the leaders are not medical professionals. They are not equipped to deal with the people in the meetings — neither physiologically or psychologically. Anyone who's been in a WW meeting can tell you, it's often a big group therapy session—these people "leading" need real training.
The fact is, Weight Watchers continues to fail the vast majority of people because dieting doesn't really work. This is a problem, especially when you consider the fact that soon our government might soon be pointing people in their direction for health care.
Professor, Researcher, and author of Health at Every Size, Dr. Linda Bacon writes:
The Supreme Court's decision to uphold President Obama's Affordable Care Act is good news for Americans in many ways, but not without significant problems. It's a big coup for the diet industry, for example, but less settling for a populace already suffering from weight anxiety and misinformed advice.
The Act enforces the recent recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force stating that all doctors should warn "obese" patients that their weight puts them at high risk for disease, but that weight loss and lifestyle changes can help – and then direct them to intensive weight-loss counseling. Currently, few insurance companies pay for such programs. Under "Obamacare," however, insurers will be required to cover most medically advised weight-loss expenses and employers will almost surely intensify their anti-obesity campaigns. Weight Watchers' stock has already surged in anticipation of the bounty to come.
Weight Watchers, and programs like it, focus on fat people, but ignore the issue that, as a country, we're eating like garbage. That's all people, not just the fatties. We now want to push our citizens into programs like these — programs with very high failure rates that quantify success with a number on a scale — but we don't want to, you know, stop subsidizing shitty crops and serving up crap school lunches. Programs that focus on weight loss above all else make it easy to shift the conversation away from the things that matter — food justice, government subsidies, pesticides, hormones — to extremely difficult individual accountability in the face of a system that pushes everyone, not just fatties, to consume garbage.
If we really wanted to make a difference in national health — from WW to fat kids — we'd be focusing on health. Weight would not be a factor. Programs like "Weight Watchers" would be "Health Watchers" (or, er, something catchier?) and we'd focus on eating fruits and veggies, moving our bodies, and loving ourselves at whatever weight. We'd also be encouraged to be more active in food justice for all and diets that are exciting and delicious, as opposed to scary and fraught with hysteria.
But there is hope. The United States is changing — we now have apps, technology, Health at Every Size, and more knowledge and information about how weight works. WW is outmoded, they don't get it, they're trying to stay modern with their new features, but they're living in the past. The company started in 1963 — WW being the future of health in America is like IBM-Packard being the future of home computing: they tried that shit, it didn't work, and the world has moved on. The future isn't about size shaming and obsessive control, it's about enriching lives and staying healthy.
It wasn't until I was 27 that I realized this. It came to me when two things happened. First, I'd logged on to WW online to track points, and on the login page was photo of a good friend. A good friend who'd never, ever been on Weight Watchers. She was sitting at her computer, smiling, and looked to be entering points into the program. I called my friend up and asked her if she had a secret WW past I knew nothing of. She informed me that the photo was from a shoot she'd done in college and had sold to stock photography sites. I was both amused and annoyed, thinking about the fact that many of the photos on their own website weren't of success stories, but of randos whose images had been purchased from Shutterstock.
Second, the night before weigh-in, I went out dancing the night with some friends until the early hours and then eaten half of a very delicious pizza. It was a pretty much perfect night. The next morning, I hauled my ass out of bed for weigh-in and was congratulated for losing weight. I mustered a "yay" but really just wanted to curl up back in bed so that I could wake up and walk to brunch with my friends later that day. My leader at the time, an enthusiastic grandmother of three who'd lost 45 pounds and kept it off for two years, was basically reciting a love poem to air-popped popcorn drenched in Molly McButter. I looked around the room, like, "Is anyone else seeing what I'm seeing? Are we really talking about salty maltodextrin at 8:30am on a Sunday?"
I just couldn't take it anymore. I finally had the life I wanted: great friends, an amazing dude, a job I didn't hate, and a dog who slept on my feet to keep them warm. I was no longer a pre-teen with nowhere else to go. I wasn't out of college with nothing else to do. In San Francisco, I met friends who were into this Health at Every Size thing — a crazy new (to me) movement that involved eating whole foods, being active in ways that felt good for your body and (ugh) soul. I felt every bit of who I had been at 12, naked in front of group of neurotic women, fading away: the anxiety, stress, and depression that went hand-in-hand with living via the scale. I was who I was going to be, and for the first time in a long time, I didn't feel like I was lacking some bit of myself just because I wouldn't be able to wear a J.Crew bikini or shunt myself into LuluLemon gear. My blood work was great, I could run the Lyon Street Steps, and I had the willpower to be happily vegan, but I couldn't get the weight off and keep it off. It just wasn't my top priority anymore.
For the record, I believe WW can work for three types of people:
1. People who want losing weight to be their goal numero uno in life, and crave structure and accountability (weekly weigh-in shame fests, tools to obsessively input food intake). These people most likely have aspirations of becoming a meeting leader/spokesperson.
2. People who are at the higher end of their natural set point weight and want to transition to the lower end. If 20 pounds is a big deal to you then yeah, WW can get you there and keep you there, and it won't be too painful.
3. Women who just had a baby and their body is at a very unusual weight for them. This weight is easier to take off than always-fat weight, because your body doesn't naturally want to be there. They might not get back to pre-baby weight, but they can get pretty close.
For everyone else, the vast majority of dieters, Weight Watchers, and calorie restriction diets like it, just aren't long-term effective.
If only I'd learned that earlier.
If I'd been taught the importance and deliciousness of healthy food and enjoyable movement when I was a kid, who knows how I would've turned out. Maybe I would have seen sports as exciting, not as punishment. Maybe I could've loved exploring nutritious eats like chana masala and injera, and rejected Weight Watchers brand prune-juice and Splenda-filled cardboard-cookies? Perhaps I wouldn't have yo-yo dieted so much, and I wouldn't have a screwed metabolism from worrying about numbers on a scale? Maybe I would've learned to love exercise and treat it, not as a chore, but as a game?
I'm working on it now, and I'm confident that it's the wave of the future. What we're doing now isn't working, and it's time for change in priorities — one that places health above weight, and real nutrition above counting calories. Weight Watchers can get on board, or they can retire. No shame in that.
New Weight Watchers 360 plan unveiled [USA Today]
*Well, that's the first time I can remember going, it says they let in kids as young as 10-years-old, but maybe it was even younger in the 90s?