It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.
– Sherlock Holmes, in A Study in Scarlett, by Arthur Conan Doyle
So, this Jezebel article is making the rounds: Weight Watchers Probably Won’t Help You Lose Tons of Weight, So Maybe Stop Dieting? The article was prompted by Weight Watchers releasing its latest iteration, Weight Watchers 360, this week. Most of you know I have been on Weight Watchers for more than 6 years; I got the new plan information in my meeting earlier tonight.
There are a lot of different topics covered in this article; let me say up front that I’m not here to debate the science of weight loss. I know the statistics, I know all about Health at Every Size (HAES), I read several fat-acceptance blogs. I don’t dispute that many, if not most, people fail at “diets,” and I certainly believe that weight is not a barometer of health.
Also, I don’t disagree with this, either:
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.
In fact, as soon as I remembered it was roll-out week, I wondered how long it would be til my leader showed us the new crap to buy, which is always only marginally different than the previous crap.
My main issue with the article is that it appears to have been written by someone who has not experienced Weight Watchers in several years, at least since the switch to the PointsPlus format (as opposed to the plain old Points format), and that the author appears to violate one of my scientist father’s favorite axioms: Anecdote does not equal data. That is to say, she presents her own experiences with Weight Watchers as the Weight Watchers experience.
So, here’s my experience: I joined WW when I was 29, the summer between my second and third years of law school. I was tired of not feeling like I fit, both in the world metaphorically and in my own skin literally. I lost exactly 50 pounds in exactly one year; it took me a year-and-a-half to lose the next 24. During that time, I was following the program closely, though not perfectly or religiously. I was exercising four to five times a week. Once I got the hang of the program, I didn’t find it difficult at all, but I had a pretty laid back attitude towards things: I recognized that points are not an exact science and I accepted that, when I couldn’t calculate points precisely, I would just have to do my best to estimate.
The Jezebel author said WW and its focus on points caused her to obsess over food; that’s my default, though (healthy or not), so it didn’t feel any different to me. If anything, I felt more in control of my eating when I was following the program. Growing up, my mother didn’t allow junk food in the home, at all, and, far from teaching me to eat a balanced diet, I fairly lusted after the things that were forbidden to me. When I baby-sat and the parents said, on the way out the door, “Help yourself to any snacks,” I was like starved man at a buffet. When I had to sell candy bars for fundraisers at school, my poor parents always had to cough up the difference to cover the ones I secretly ate. Because I constantly felt deprived (despite never actually going hungry), food is, to this day, probably the thing that occupies the largest part of my thoughts.
WW gave me structure, and rules, and a limit – when you’re out of points, stop eating. That seems crazy to some people, my husband included. But I never learned to listen to my body, to feed it when it was hungry and stop when it was satisfied. When there were good tasting foods to eat, I ate them in quantity, like I might never have them again. And implicit in the limit is, if you’re still hungry when you’re out of points, you probably aren’t eating the right things, so make your points count nutritionally. That’s another thing I think the Jezebel writer gets wrong:
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.
But as long as I’ve been a member, WW has, in fact, focused on eating fruits and vegetables, and exercise (Activity Points, anyone?), and not beating yourself up when you stumble (which is a form of loving yourself no matter your weight). If the author didn’t get that at her meetings, she was going to the wrong meetings.
Speaking of meetings, this is another place where my experience largely diverges from the author’s. In 6+ years on WW, I have never gone even a single week without attending a meeting. I’m not kidding – I’ve attended meetings in at least five different states and in Canada. I’ve gone when I was on vacation, and even while I was on my honeymoon. My leaders have never “beaten into” our heads the amount of weight they’ve lost; some of them don’t even mention it unless someone asks. I’ve never seen young children at WW meetings who are actually on the program (and you have to get special permission under 16, I believe, to even join). I’ve certainly never seen anyone “shamed” at the scale, as the author contends; every receptionist I’ve ever encountered has been exceedingly discreet. And while I have seen members “brag” about disordered eating behaviors, I’ve also seen my various leaders explain why those behaviors aren’t healthy and help the member identify the need she’s trying to meet and find other, healthier ways to meet it. As for this:
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.
Well. First, there’s no rule that only people who need to lose weight for medical reasons can join WW. Second, WW has a weight range for every height (which I believe also takes age into account); as long as you are 5 or more pounds above the low end of the range for your height, you can join. Third, what the fuck business is it of yours? The “last 5 pounds” is just as important to her as your 20-, 30-, 40-, or 100-pound goal is to you. Is it difficult sometimes, as a much heavier woman, to hear a much thinner woman lament how hard it is, when you feel like you’d kill to be the weight she is? Yes, undoubtedly. But you are not her. You don’t live in her body. And you sure as shit don’t get to judge her or say, essentially, that she has no right to be in that room.
The author also says that WW and its focus on points drove her to disordered eating behaviors, like “starving” herself before meetings, eating whole packages of WW gummies because they were only one point instead of eating an apple, because that’s 2 points (again, this, too, goes to show her info is outdated; fruit is now points-free on WW). My experience is the opposite: Never in my life has my eating been less disordered than it was during the first three years I was on WW and carefully following the program. During that time, I was much less likely to hoard food, sneak food, eat alone because I was ashamed of what I was eating, eat until I felt my stomach was going to explode, binge eat, eat mindlessly, etc, etc, ad nauseum. My entire eating life prior to WW, and in the last 3.5 years, has been defined by those behaviors (why is another post altogether and beside the point for today). It was only with the structure and support that WW provided me that I was able to eat like a normal person. I finally fit.
Now, obviously, I have gained back all of the weight I lost, plus 12 pounds, over the course of the last four years. That places me among the storied 95% of people who reportedly are unable to sustain their weight loss. That’s not WW’s fault, though, and to suggest it’s a failure of the program is folly. WW didn’t stop working for me, the way the author claims it did for her. I stopped following the program, first in small ways, and later altogether (I never stopped going to meetings, though, because I never wanted weight loss as a goal to fade from view; also my unbroken meeting streak is kind of a freakish point of pride for me).
It started when I began dating my husband and wanted to make him all the foods he loved and join him in enjoying them, and when it was more important to spend time with him than to go to the gym. Basically, I made the decision at that point that something else was more important, and my lack of diligence caught up with me. Over the last several years, I’ve made numerous halfhearted attempts at following the program for a few days here and there, but I never put in the same level of effort that I did back in the beginning, and so I never saw any results that would lead me to keep putting in the effort. It’s a vicious cycle.
But. I know WW would work for me again if I really committed to it. I’ve never met anyone who truly followed the program (and not even “religiously,” just mostly) for whom WW did not work. I’m not saying those people don’t exist; the Jezebel author claims to be one of them. I’m saying, that’s not my experience and the experience of many of the people I actually know who have done WW. And I’ve known A LOT of them.
My purpose in writing all of this is not say how WW actually is; it’s merely a counterpoint to the Jezebel article, because I feel that author did try to say how WW is, and I don’t believe that any one person’s experience is universal. Accordingly, as they say on the internet, your mileage may vary.
P.S. Was I the only one who thought it was awesome that the name of the researcher quoted in the Jezebel article — an article about weight loss — was Dr. Bacon?