Published on Thu, Apr 10, 2008
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For some, Weight Watchers is not a diet; it’s a lifestyle

By Jack Kintner

This year New York City has had to purchase special ambulance gurneys that can hold up to 1,600 pounds, due in part to a rampant obesity epidemic outlined by such documentaries as “Supersize Me,” shown locally last fall. There are lots of plans and diets for losing weight, some effective and some not, but one of the oldest and most effective commercial plans is Weight Watchers, a movement that began 45 years ago in New York and continues to grow in more than 30 countries world-wide.

North Vancouver native Arlene Jackson not only successfully lost weight but has managed to keep it off for six years and in the process became an ardent supporter of the Weight Watchers philosophy.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said after seeing a photo of herself at 175 pounds at a 2001 Christmas party. That was nearly 50 pounds more than she had weighed much of her adult life. “I’d quit smoking a year before that but until I saw that picture I didn’t realize how much weight I’d gained,” said Jackson, 57 at the time.

A friend of her mother’s suggested that she go with her to a Weight Watcher’s meeting. “At first, going to something like that meant admitting I had a problem. Then I saw that picture,” Jackson said, and within a week she was enrolled. “I found out it’s not just for really heavy people but for people who want to get their life back food-wise.”

Jackson stressed that she did not feel hungry during her weight loss program. “Not at all,” she said, “because the idea is to eat healthy and well. You still have to live and have energy. You still need fat and carbs and so on.”

“Weight Watchers is not a diet,” said Birch Bay resident Anne Freeman, local Weight Watcher’s leader. “It’s a lifestyle based on what you learn at the meetings and read about. You have to eat food to lose weight. New members are often eating so few calories they don’t lose because they go into a kind of starvation response, where your body hangs to what it has. But this isn’t a diet so much as it’s a lifestyle.”

ackson, a petite (5’2”), weighed in at 175.6 pounds on her first visit. According to body mass index calculations (for more info, see a ratio of height to weight greater than 30 is obese, and Jackson came in at 32.1.

Weight Watchers offers two methods to lose weight. Jackson chose the Flex Plan, tracking her daily calorie intake using a patented point system based on a given food’s calories, fiber content and saturated fat. The number of points allowed per day is determined by taking into account one’s sex, age, activity level and other factors.

Jackson steadily lost 45 pounds to her target weight of 130 in just eight months, averaging two pounds per week, by sticking rigidly to the number of points she was allowed, 22 per day.

“The minute you start losing weight you begin getting positive feedback from the people around you. Two months into it I’d lost 16 pounds,” she said, and almost immediately began to feel better and lighter on her feet. She rewarded herself with some new clothes. By sticking to her target weight after reaching it she qualified to become a lifetime member. In the ensuing six years she hasn’t varied more than five pounds from it despite frequent travel and a temporary job relocation to Victoria. She still adheres to the plan but no longer attends the meetings.

Jackson said that it’s the flexibility of the plan that worked for her. “I had what I called a pointless Saturday each week in that I allowed myself to go over my limits. I still do that, but when I’m up a few pounds now I know how to lose the weight. If I sound like a true believer, I am, because this works,” Jackson said.

The daughter of a Vancouver surgeon, she was wary about what she called diet gimmicks. “You may lose weight but you can’t do a gimmick the rest of your life. This way you learn to eat real food the right way in portions that allow you to keep your weight down. It’s a lot of common sense. You don’t get hungry but you do loose weight gradually and then keep it off if you follow the program.”

Weight Watchers emphasizes exercise, and for this Jackson enrolled in the Vancouver Sun Run Clinic at a North Vancouver rec center, training three times a week for the popular April event. She recalled seeing a notice there about a number of different diets, “with pros and cons, an impartial kind of comment, and it said that of all the ways of losing weight, Weight Watchers is the most reasonable among commercial programs because it teaches you how to eat and lose weight with the kind of food you should be eating every day. It’s just common sense, along with the support and discipline to follow it,” she said. “It’s about the joy I felt at having found something that’s going to work for the rest of my life.”

Weight Watchers began with Brooklyn housewife Jean Nidtech’s efforts to stop her compulsive cookie habit in 1961. Frustrated with her lack of results, Nidtech invited like-minded friends to her home and began a support group that grew into Weight Watchers.

In 1978 the enterprise was sold to the H. J. Heinz company. It even has its own symbol, WTW, on the New York Stock Exchange and employs almost 50,000 people world-wide.

An alternate approach that’s fairly new for Weight Watchers is called the Core Plan. Instead of counting points it emphasizes keeping your food to 10 basic food groups, a core list low in fat and calories, including fruits and vegetables, grains and starches, lean meats, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products.

“You’re watching your portions, but you’re eating anything you want. That’s the joy of it,” Jackson said, “and any culture’s food can fit with this. You don’t have to change what you eat, just how much. It’s about learning how to eat.”

Dieticians opinions are positive

“Weight Watchers gets a lot of respect from the health community,” said Dietician Althea Zanecosky, MS, RD, a former spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association who was quoted by the online medical advice site Web MD.

“I think it’s the best [commercial plan] because it’s balanced; it gives people a lot of ways to lose weight, and it retrains people in how they view food and eating, so it’s highly unlikely that they will go back to their bad habits.”

Aside from a few products Weight Watchers has a minimal food product line, which Zanecosky said is another bonus. “I’ve always had a problem with those types of programs, where people have to buy special-packaged products. If people have not learned how to look at real food, they will not change their eating habits. Weight Watchers teaches people how to eat – that they will need to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables for the rest of their lives to lose weight.”

Once enrolled, members can go to weekly meetings virtually anywhere. Local Weight Watchers meetings are held Wednesdays at 12:15 p.m. and 5:15 p.m. at the Northwood Alliance Church, 580 C Street in Blaine.

Visitors are encouraged to sit in on a meeting to see if it’s for them, Freeman said, adding that she’s doing a promotion through May in which new members do not have to pay the $40 initial registration fee. Beyond that it costs roughly $10 per week based on how payments are made with discounts for monthly purchases and for seniors over 65.

A monthly pass for a little under $40 allows attendance at unlimited meetings per month. For more information, go to the Weight Watchers website or call 1-800-374-9191.