I’ve been waiting a long time to write and post this. I really couldn’t do it until today (with the new program launch), so with no small amount of trepidation, please allow me to make my case for a better future.
Can we ever truly succeed at losing weight, and keeping it off?
There is, perhaps, no greater frustration than a weight re-gain. It seems that none of us should surprised that the weight often comes back, but when it happens, we blame ourselves and our confidence is shaken. It’s happened to most of us, and it’s happened to me — more than once. So, for all of us (and I’m including myself) who have ever regained the weight, please, please, please, please give yourself a break. It happens and, in fact, it happens for a good reason.
That said, we need not accept the status quo. On a personal level, something changed the last time I lost weight on Weight Watchers. For the first time, I started to change my lifestyle much more fundamentally. I stopped treating Weight Watchers like a diet, and I started using it as a path to find a new way of living. I finally took charge. Since becoming a Lifetime Member in March 2009, I’ve kept my weight off and have been at or within 5 pounds of my goal weight. I’m proud of this fact, but I’m hardly a hero. I have my struggles just like everyone else, but with the benefit of a lot of hard fought lessons behind me, I now have a much better approach now for dealing with this issue.
In order to fundamentally change our lives for the better, it is critical that we know why we do what we do. Why is it that we humans seem predestined to struggle with weight?
Blame it on evolution!
Our beautifully designed human bodies were perfectly constructed for a world of food scarcity. We were given fat cells that allowed us to store energy for long periods of time between meals. We were given a hormonal system that allowed our stomach to communicate with our brain to signal that it was time to eat as our energy stores began to run low. To encourage us to eat when food was available, our brains were wired to make the act of eating pleasurable. Of course, for thousands of years, we did not know when our next meal was going to come. Even in more recent centuries, food and meals could not be taken for granted. As well, virtually everything we ate was prepared by us from simple ingredients in an unprocessed form.
That was then and this is now. The advent of efficient transportation and refrigeration made basic food stocks much more accessible and available, allowing us to break the familiar patterns of seasonal availability.
All the while, food manufacturers found new ways to make foods all the more palatable through the use of sugars, fats, salt, etc. Food manufacturers worked aggressively to innovate products, extend variety and give consumers more “value” for their food dollar. Food manufacturers were expected to compete and grow, and they did. Over the past 30 years, we experienced a period of unprecedented change in our food supply. So much so that thousands of years of evolution in our eating systems were suddenly thrown into disarray by all of the above changes. We no longer lived in a world of food scarcity. We no longer lived in a world where food was the largest item on our monthly budget. We no longer lived in a world where restaurant meals were special occasions. We began to cook less, and eat out more. The three-square-meal-a-day cycle became replaced with a nearly constant rhythm of food grazing.
We were suddenly eating all of the time whether we were hungry or not. Worse, we were eating foods that did not play nicely with our hormonal systems causing us to feel hungry too soon after we finished eating. Finally, the reward system of our brain went into overdrive and began looking for new ways of getting a food buzz, lit by a dopamine release. A body, brain and system perfectly developed for a world of food scarcity was wholly unprepared for a world of food overabundance. It’s hardly a surprise that we gained weight. In fact, the obesity epidemic was seemingly all but inevitable.
There’s not much point in looking for a villain in this story. We can hardly be surprised that food companies and restaurants sought to grow their business when this is exactly what they were incented to do. Regardless, our lives had been re-wired into a food explosion world, compounded by a much more sedentary environment. Ultimately, we became the beneficiaries of the scourges of affluence.
Can we please stop the stigma and self-flagellation?
The truly sad perversion in all of this is the degree to which the overweight population (most of us) has been set-up to fail and then made to feel worse about it. Society wags its finger at the overweight and saddles them with stigma. Our self-esteem drops, and we think that if only they had willpower and were stronger, we would finally be in control. In truth, we never really had a chance. Blaming people for being obese seems like blaming someone who lives in a bad neighborhood for being mugged. Yes, we can learn to protect ourselves in our bad food neighborhood, but ridiculing the victim is hardly a winning path to defeating the obesity epidemic.
We now know enough to be dangerous (in a good way)
We know so much more today about why we over eat than we did five, ten or 50 years ago. We now understand that not all calories are equal, particularly when considering how much energy our bodies need to use to covert food into useful energy as well as differences in satiety and nutrient density.
More recently, we now understand that there are systems in our brains that cause us to overeat that have nothing to do with nutrient or energy deficits. This so-called “hedonic” eating system is the wiring in our brains that causes us to over-respond to trigger foods, crave them, and then get a shot of dopamine when we get them. We now understand that in our current food environment, we face a steady and spectacular stream of food throughout virtually every minute of the day. It is estimated that we make 200 food decisions every single day, but we are only conscious of 10 to 15 of them. It’s no wonder that we mindlessly eat with only fleeting recognition that we are doing so.
Given all of the above, it’s all the more troubling that we would ask people to tap into hidden reservoirs of willpower. Research on willpower, housed in our pre-frontal lobe, would suggest that it’s not a limitless resource. We now understand that decision fatigue sets in over time, and we eventually give in. When we find ourselves in a food trance, staring down our favorite indulgence becomes a hopeless fight. Simply stated, willpower is horribly over-rated.
So how does success happen?
Everything I have seen from our successful members clearly shows that losing weight and learning to keep it off requires a combination of all of the following:
- Becoming more mindful of what we eat. Research has shown us that keeping a food diary is remarkably effective in helping us tackle issues related to 200 daily food decisions.
- Learning to make food tradeoffs we can live with. Deprivation always fails us. There is only so much misery that we can bear. However, if we start choosing foods that taste great, are naturally filling, and provide bulk, we can better avoid the misery.
- Taking accountability and control when we feel out of control by employing tools that give us a way to shake off the shackles of being a victim to our food environment.
- Learning to rebuild our personal food environment, at home, in the office, in our cars, etc., we can create a place where we avoid temptation by throwing it out the window.
- Recognizing that the best kind of willpower is the discipline to have a plan before we enter a scary food situation, then we can be amazed by how much more in control we are when we enter them.
- Recognizing that simple, easy to do routines can help to make healthy behavior second nature. Boiling the ocean never works. However, implementing a few small changes at a time can have a profound multiplier effect on our other behaviors.
Welcome to Your Future: Introducing Weight Watchers 360°
It is time for Weight Watchers to provide a simple, engaging program that expands beyond the tremendous impact of our popular PointsPlus® system (introduced two years ago) by helping people begin to systematically rebuild their food and activity environment. [No, we didn’t change the formula, and no, you don’t have to buy new books!] We can build upon our PointsPlus® system by giving our members a simple approach that can help them to routinize seemingly small, but deceptively powerful healthy habits. Said differently, the Weight Watchers 360 program is about:
- Tracking (PointsPlus): making the smart food/activity choice
- Spaces: making those choices easy
- Routines: making those choices second nature
Enter Weight Watchers 360°, our new program, designed to allow our members to systematically, yet simply, find the healthy lifestyle that will help them not just to lose the weight, but learn to keep it off. This program pushes Weight Watchers and its members into places where we have never been. It takes the suggested and makes it explicit. It shines a light on what needs to be done but without overwhelming. For me, this new program represents one of the most important steps into the future that Weight Watchers has ever taken.
Having a fantastic new program is not enough
The simple truth of successful weight loss and management is this: the longer we follow the program the easier it can become and the more it becomes second nature. Our challenge at Weight Watchers is to breathe life into this new Weight Watchers 360° program by finding every way imaginable to make it livable, compelling and fun.
To this end, we are supporting the launch of Weight Watchers 360° with a full assortment of tools ranging from a completely new weekly topic curriculum to a refreshed website, and for our subscribers, a full battery of mobile tools and apps and our new ActiveLink™ integrated activity experience.
All this technology and these learning tools are incredibly important in their own right. However, this program becomes truly spectacular when we combine all of this future technology with the simple truth that has made Weight Watchers work for so many members for last 50 years: that when we go through this process with others we are so much more likely to succeed. The meeting becomes the force that helps us to stay accountable, creates a ritual of success and gives us the support and sense of belief we need to stick with it and thrive. As a collective group we are so much stronger than any of us could ever be on our own.
Weight Watchers is turning 50 in 2013. For half a century, we have been on the ground helping people change their lives, one person at a time. We’ve seen their successes and we’ve seen their struggles. We know them all too well because we’ve experienced them ourselves. Our members’ struggles and victories are our struggles and victories. As humans we struggle and succeed because of our inherent nature. We are wired to succumb to temptation. We have to live with the reality that life too often gets in the way of the act of being healthy. Yet if our inherent nature often causes us to trip and fall, the most compelling aspect of our nature is that we are so much stronger than we know. We have learned so very much over these 50 years, and we now bring all of that cumulative learning and experience together to create the program that is perfectly designed for human nature.
Weight Watchers 360° is designed for human nature. It is built to harness our strength, and to recognize our vulnerabilities. Through it comes the possibility that we can tackle this issue once and for all. For too long, we’ve been set up to expect disappointment. Now, we can expect amazing.
Welcome to the next 50 years.