I caused a bit of controversy on the Fitness Between Friends Facebook wall the other day. I simply posted some “food” for thought: “If a diet worked for you in the past, but you have to do it again…did it really work?” It is not the first time I have expressed this sentiment, but it is the first time I got a vehement response. In fact, I was called “heartless and cruel.”
I can’t help think I got such an extreme reaction because I touched a nerve. Tough love is, well, tough.
The diet in question is Weight Watchers and it just wasn’t one friend who is on it – I seem to have run into a throng of clients and friends who are going back to counting points because it has worked for them before…once, twice, even five times. I’ll give you that it may work in the short term. You get that satisfying result, but it clearly hasn’t lead to sustainable weight loss or lifestyle changes that prevent you from going back to meetings, stepping on a scale in front of people and counting points.
I have no doubt Weight Watchers works. I see people drop pounds on it all the time and a study (sponsored by Weight Watchers, of course) showed that dieters on the plan lose more than twice as much as dieters who receive intermittent weight loss advice from a doctor or nurse. Weight Watcher’s participants are dedicated and committed…and spend up to $500 per year on losing weight. And, they keep coming back.
My question is, if it works – why do you have to go back to it? Weight Watchers, as other “diet” plans, seems to fail in teaching people (as a whole, I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions of success) how to apply the program outside of their parameters for the long term. It makes sense after all – if Weight Watchers can turn people away permanently, then it won’t make money off them when they need to lose weight in the future.
The sad fact is that 83 percent of dieters (all dieters, not just WW folk) regain most of their weight within a year and 95 percent within 5 years. Often, they gain back MORE than they lost. And, as Dr. Oz writes in You, On a Diet, the weight regained is mostly in the form of fat. To lose weight quickly (especially those first satisfying weeks on Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig or whatever), you lose quite a bit of muscle because your body wants desperately to hold on to its fat stores. When you gain fat back, you’ve replaced this lost muscle with fat – meaning you are fatter (composition-wise) than ever before. Fatter, less healthy, more vulnerable to disease and, frankly, feeling defeated.
Members of the National Weight Control Registry, a group of more than 5,000 dieters who were studied because they successfully kept off the weight they lost for at least 5 years, largely followed some sort of “program” to lose the weight — 55 percent of them used a “plan.” All who have kept the weight off have continued strategies to maintain the weight loss, and this is key. Cutting back on television, always exercising, weighing themselves regularly and a low-calorie diet are some of these strategies. When the program ended, their diligence did not.
If a program like Weight Watchers motivates you, excellent. Trying to lose weight and become healthier is an important step – but I beg you to examine your motivations and to look beyond the program. Before you go on a structured diet, consider the following:
- What is your motivation? If you are simply losing weight for an event or a body image, it may be hard to stick to your goals. You can always let yourself down – but if your motivation is longevity (so you can live a long, vibrant life); or ethically driven (you aren’t going to support factory farms or hurting animals); or health driven, so you can cure or prevent cancer, arthritis, stroke, heart attack and diabetes (all big risks when you are overweight or obese), you may have a greater drive to stick with a healthier eating style.
- Does the diet teach you anything? And, I don’t mean that a margarita has 7 points or that you can, if you desire, eat all the veggies you want. Yes, a margarita-a-day diet will pack on the pounds and eating lots of vegetables is a good thing – but if you are only following these guidelines to hit your score or point allotment, you are missing the big picture. Are you truly learning how to eat nutrient-dense, whole foods that provide nutrients so your body’s needs are met? Does the diet let you still load up on processed foods so that you continue to miss fiber (naturally occurring, not the kind found in a supplemental cereal bar) antioxidants and phytonutrients? There is SO MUCH more to food than a “point.” The worst offenders in this category are programs that have pre-set meals and food there for you – unless you plan to eat that cardboard-crusted, mini pizza for the rest of your life, chances are the pounds will pile back on when you go off the plan. A diet plan is only good if it gives you strategies for the long haul – your entire life. If not, you’ll be coming back again…and again…
- Is it “not that bad?” That doesn’t seem like a good way to live. If you are just getting by on the foods or portion sizes you are choosing to lose the weight, it means you are not in a sustainable plan.
- Does it promise quick weight loss? Losing weight quickly is a sure-fire way to regain. High-protein, low-carb plans are notorious for these results. Chances are much of that weight is water, so you aren’t really losing fat. Your body has a set point at which it feels comfortable and healthy – dip below that set point too quickly and it makes it super hard to maintain weight loss. Your body simply doesn’t know you are limiting calories to look good in a bikini – it thinks you may have hit a famine and should store up for the long haul. Most experts recommend losing just 1 to 2 pounds per week for sustainable results. If you are only 5 to 10 lbs. overweight, you should shoot for even slower results like ½ to 1 pound per week. Fast weight loss may also mean muscle loss – leaving your metabolism shredded. Your greater percentage of fat, even though the scale says you weigh less, takes fewer calories to maintain — meaning, you may be relegated to rabbit food and itsy-bitsy portions…forever.
- Is it working because it is novel? Diet plans are often like a new toy at Christmas – they look good on the package and are fun for a few days, but then get tossed into the bin after a week or two and sold at the summer garage sale. After the initial excitement and motivation wears off, dieting fatigue sets in and you just aren’t that interested in counting calories (or points) and slogging away at the gym for the sake of burning off fat. A habit takes at least 21 days to set in, and if you try to implement more than two habits at once, your chances of sustain them is very low. Diet plans that force you to make multiple major changes at one time are destined for long-term failure.
The moral of the story? Not all diet plans are awful – but they are tools. Make sure you use the correct one for your goals. If you do go on a diet plan, have an exit strategy. Simply deciding you’ve reached your goal is not enough. Members of the National Weight Control Registry report continued adherence to a low-calorie diet and high levels of activity. They also report eating breakfast daily, weighing themselves weekly, watching less than 10 hours of television weekly and exercising a minimum of 1 hour per day.
In my humble opinion, ditch the concept of “diet” altogether and change your life. Slowly replace processed foods with whole ones (those closer to what they’d look like in nature), ditch most foods that come in shrink wrap or a can, educate yourself with books like “Thrive” (Brendan Brazier) and documentaries such as “Hungry for Change.” It may take longer to see results, it may not be as exciting and defined as a “plan,” but it is more likely to stick. You may have success following simple strategies, such as those put forth in my Build a Better Body Campaign — and it costs you nothing.