I’ve tried a few different diets (Atkins, South Beach, Weight Watchers, Volumetrics, the bean diet, the peanut butter diet, and a handful of others) and Weight Watchers is the hands-down winner from a number of perspectives:

(1)    I lost weight on it—a lot of weight. I lost 60 pounds the first time I tried it, 70 the second, and 60 the third. No, those were not incremental and yes, the reason I had to do the Weight Watchers dive multiple times is because I kept gaining the weight back. (Incidentally, each weight gain coincided with a new job, a job that was hitting the skids, or a job that was going so well, I let it take over my life.)

Brace yourself but you can't get fit eating this stuff. Impossible. (Image via Wikimedia; Source: Penarc)

(2)    It’s fairly flexible. I’m not restricted to eating just protein or just solids with high water content or just, and you’re not going to believe this one, beans.

(3)    It’s about as healthful as healthful gets. If you do it right, you’re minimizing calories and fat as you kick up the fiber in your diet, all while guzzling more water than a desert nomad. Without realizing it, you’ll end up eating more of all the heart-healthy kinds of essentials and much less sub-optimal food.

(4)    When you pair it up with intensive and consistent exercise, it’s unstoppable. The pounds will melt away.

But odds are that like me, even the most dutiful Weight Watcher will find herself gaining all the weight back and then some. Apparently, only 5% of dieters keep weight off after 5 years of dieting (Trieu, 2007).

Why?

Weight Watchers knows. All these diet companies know.  In fact, they’re beginning to acknowledge it.

Go to the WeightWatchers.com site and what’s the first tag line you see?

“Change starts here.” It starts here but it doesn’t end here? Hmmm….

Then take a look at the “Success Stories.” How many of them feature people who have lost weight on Weight Watchers (!) and gained it back? Dinorah’s story is a good example.

Click on the “Eat Well” tab. Wait, eat what? That’s right, “eat well.”

All-out cheese? On Weight Watchers? Not likely. But all-out mixed messages? Yeah, likely. (Image via Wikimedia)

Then, what do you see? Yep, three—count ‘em, THREE—separate articles on Thanksgiving, including one called “Thanksgiving Countdown.” We’re counting down to a turkey feast? On a diet?!!! Hee-haww! Now, this is what I call a weight loss plan. All I have to do is starve myself a little but keep in the back of my mind the simple thought that in just days, I’ll be stuffing myself so full I could be the premiere float in the next Macy’s parade. But best of all, Weight Watchers will help me run the countdown. That’s what I call service.

My favorite, though, is the “Topic” link toward the bottom of the page: “All-Out Cheese.”

All-out cheese? What kind of diet IS this? We can eat cheese all-out? I can go hog-wild on cheese?

Honestly, every time I read this, I think about that film, Defending Your Life, where the main character gets to eat anything he wants risk-free while he’s on trial in the afterlife. (Take a look at the 2:53 mark in the following clip.)


But then I click on the “How Weight Watchers Works” tab and I see something different:

“We know you want to keep weight off for the long haul. What you eat is important, and the Momentum program will help you to make smart choices and keep hunger in check. And what you learn will stay with you for a lifetime.”

And Weight Watchers is by no means the only diet organization sending mixed messages. A friend of mine went to see a diabetes-specialized dietitian. One of the first pamphlets she handed him was a guide to fast food. Are you kidding me? Want a quick guide to fast food? Here’s mine: Never get any again. But, Mike, what about all the salads? Salads? The three leaves of lettuce that comprise those salads didn’t fill up the very hungry caterpillar and they won’t fill up a grown human being either. Skip fast food. Period.

Weight Watchers telling everyone to eat well, dietitians guiding diabetics to fast food, what’s going on here?

Can I stuff myself beyond recognition at the nearest Mickey D’s or do I have to eat smarter? Can I get drunk on mozzarella the next time I have to work late, or do I have to eat more thoughtfully? Can I make long-term, life-long changes on diets such as Weight Watchers or does change only START here? Will these people make up their minds?

Well, the problem is they can’t because—and I’m only guessing here—the marketers want to make this diet as accessible to every human being as it can possibly be while the nutritionists want it to work. As long as the forces of evil battle the forces of good for diet supremacy, we’re going to see this tension on even the better diet program Web sites such as Weight Watchers.

To its credit, the Weight Watchers organization seems to be sending purer, more homogeneous messages of late. See the Jennifer Hudson campaign as an example:

But the problem, as we have seen on Weight Watchers’ Web site, is still out there. Needless to say, if Weight Watchers can’t make up its mind about whether it wants dieters to feel as if they can eat with abandon or make smarter choices, then how can its dieters?

Dieters end up food-obsessed (just check out the Weight Watchers message boards) and bouncing on and off the program. They even have a glossary for the bounce. They say they’re “on program” when they’re sticking to it and “off program” when they’re not.

If my history is any indication, when you start using words like “off program,” you’re done. Consider yourself an official yo-yo once you start brandishing the binary diet language.  The very possibility of leaving the program makes you vulnerable to recidivism.

Again, per my last post, it comes down to RESOLVE. You’re either in it to win it or you’re not.

These thoughts are hardly revolutionary. Just two years ago, a handful of researchers in Australia captured the reasons why dieters drop off and then jump back on a program (including Weight Watchers). They pointed to the mixed messages coming from diet companies and singled out the following dieter’s representation of the problem: “They all work..when you stick to them. It’s when you go off them that they don’t” (Thomas et al, 2008, p. 4).

Let me summarize the tips emerging from this post:

(1)    Resolve is everything. Per the last post, you have to stick to the diet.

(2)    I know this is going to come as a huge shock to some of you but on any respectable diet plan such as Weight Watchers, you can’t have anything you want most of the time. You can’t. I’m sorry. You CAN have some things you want in controlled portions once in a while BUT all-out cheese and fast food? No. No way.

(3)    There’s no off-program, on-program. There’s always on program (but see the tips below for how to think about this).

(4)    This DOES NOT mean you can’t have non-diet meals. Your program has to allow for those meals. If your program does not allow for those meals, then modify the program or find a different one. You can’t spend your life eating one type of food or even one series of foods because sooner or later, you, your family, or friends will go nuts watching you and they will—mark my words—try to sabotage your efforts. You will have to make portion-controlled concessions from time to time: your diet MUST allow for this. How to do this will require a blog post all to itself (coming soon) but for now, just consider the thoughts here.

(5)    Counting points or sticking to one type of food does breed obsessiveness. Use methods such as Weight Watchers’ point system to learn how to make smart choices and then free yourself from it. If you’re THINKING properly about how to get fit and feel better, you won’t need the point system after a while. You’ll make those smart choices because you’ve internalized the lessons and WANT to get fitter and feel better.

(6)    Do find a diet such as Weight Watchers; the online channel is fine. It provides a healthful approach to getting fitter and leaner.

So, what do you think? Am I right? Or, do you have experiences to the contrary?  Do tell! Would love to hear your thoughts.

–          Mike Raven

References

Thomas, S.L., Hyde, J., Karunaratne, A., Kausman, R., & Komesaroff, P.A. (2008). “They all work when you stick to them: A qualitative investigation of dieting, weight loss, and physical exercise in obese individuals. Nutrition Journal, 7, 1-7.

Trieu, G.(2007). How many Weight Watchers points is that?. Retrieved from http://www.healthyweightforum.org/eng/articles/weight_watchers_points/

The Matrix series, yes the WHOLE series, is probably my favorite trilogy but I never understood one of the Oracle’s key lines until I began thinking about my own health and surviving the workplace. For those of you who don’t know, the Oracle is an Obi-Wan-like character who helps the protagonist, Neo, understand how to save the remaining humans on a post-apocalyptic Earth.

Turning to Neo, she says, “You didn’t come here to make a choice. You’ve already made it. You’re here to try to understand why you made it.” Take a look at roughly the 2-minute mark of the following Youtube video:

I thought of this line when I read the following quotation from a hot-off-the-presses academic article that’s sweeping the news wires today:

“I am 45. I have always made sure my daughters go to the doctor but didn’t make time to get a doctor for myself. I’ve been too busy working and providing for my family. I wasn’t feeling well for a couple of months and finally let my daughter take me to the emergency room. They prescribed medication for hypertension, diabetes, and cholesterol but didn’t get me an appointment to follow up with a doctor. Mrs. Byrd did. She got me my own doctor within a week. I feel that I was treated well and will work with the doctor and do what it takes to get my blood pressure, diabetes, and cholesterol under control. I want to be there for my children for a very long time.” (Victor et al., 2010, eFigure 3. Role Model Story)

No, I’m not the guy who said all that but I could have been. Despite the fact that I’m 40, white, and don’t hit a barber shop in Dallas County, Texas every 3-4 weeks, I could well have had much in common with the man whose story became one of 84 such “model stories.”

A barber cutting hair: potential health intervention? (Image: Wikimedia)

Trained by researchers as part of an experiment, barbers told these stories to black men as the barbers gave them not only a haircut but checked their blood pressure and other vitals (Victor et al., 2010). As the men returned to the shops every couple of weeks, the barbers monitored them, encouraged them to see their doctors (and even paired them up with doctors if they didn’t know whom to turn to), and continued to tell them stories about successful interventions.

Guess what happened?

Yep, these men got the help they needed and their blood pressure came down. In fact, even men who received only pamphlets rather than story-telling and more direct barber-intervention (though the men still received blood pressure testing and monitoring when they went for their haircuts), saw improvement.

So, what worked? Was it the regularity of the intervention? Was it the fact that the barbers literally held their hands in some cases? Was it the haircut?

I began this post by noting that I am probably more like than unlike the experiment’s participants. I have often buried myself in my work, cited family sacrifices as a plausible waiver of all rights to health, and comforted myself (sometimes semi-consciously) that if anything really went wrong with my health, I could always get the help I needed.  There have been times when I got help but didn’t follow up, figuring again, work work work, got to work.

And there were even times when I resolved to do something about my health. Of course, I didn’t follow up on those either, letting my strongest of attempts to get myself in shape die on the vine. But that was okay, too. After all, got to work, work, work because God knows, the work is most important and the company will certainly take care of all of us. (Do I have to use some sort of icon to illustrate the sarcasm?)

But then I started realizing something—what I call the Quantum Paradox of Health and Longevity.

Like the study’s participants, I began to see the possibility of something better—i.e., by attending to my health, I could be there for my family. I had to admit I have a choice: I can be better.

BUT—and this is a big one—I DON’T have a choice. What’s the trajectory of bad behavior? Where does it end?  An ER would probably be a best-case scenario given some of the possibilities. Do I want to end up unable to take care of my family?

"Hey, did you hear what happened to Mike? Okay, on to the next topic..." (Image: Wikimedia)

If I keel over from a heart attack, will the company I work for say, “Well, he worked really hard for us. It’s up to us to jump right in there and make sure we provide for his wife and kids?” At best, I’d be a 3-minute highlight of a team meeting, “Hey, did you hear what happened to Mike?” after which, my colleagues would review their agenda and lament how difficult it is to fill out the new self-assessment form.

So, it’s a paradox. I can eat, couch, and work myself to death, failing my family and ultimately myself, or do something about it. Is there really a choice?

So, here’s why I think this study worked—and please, let me know what YOU think. This study worked because for the first time, participants came face-to-face with the reality of the paradox. They couldn’t hide behind the delusions. They couldn’t pretend that they had no choice and they couldn’t pretend that they did. They had to find a way to get better because the alternatives were unthinkable.

In short, they had to reject the very notion of a choice, at the same time making a very deliberate one: they had to choose to do the only thing that would save their families and themselves.

Put another way, they’d already made their choice; they just had to understand WHY they’d made it.

What choices have you never already made? How did you come to understand them?

Looking forward to your thoughts!

-Mike Raven

 

 

References

Victor, R.G., Ravenell, J.E., Freeman, A., Leonard, D., Bhat, D.G., et al. (2010). Effectivess of a barber-based intervention for improving hypertension control in black men. Archives of Internal Medicine, 170(18), doi: 10.1001