Weight Watchers: A wolf in sheep’s clothing

Weight WatchersWeight Watchers announced last week that it would offer free memberships to teens ages 13 to 17. Yeah…I have a few thoughts on that (she said in a huge understatement).

My first thoughts stemmed from my personal experience with Weight Watchers. I had dabbled with the idea of diets ever since I was old enough to pore over the diet plans in my mother’s “women’s magazines” and imagine how brighter and shinier my life would be if I could go on one of those diets (impossible, since I was in grade school and not responsible for my own meals). I was an introverted child with a lack of physical confidence, and I thought a diet might magically make me both confident and extroverted (not that I knew what “introvert” and “extrovert” meant back then).

And this is where we yo-yo

That longing set the stage for my acquiescence when, at age 16, my father sent me to Weight Watchers. It was no secret that he found my body unacceptable, I had known that long before I started my close study of magazine diets. It’s hard to misunderstand words like “fat” and “lazy” when they are being flung at you by the person you rely on for food, shelter and safety. (Never mind that photos from that time show that I was pretty average size, and as for the lazy…yeah, I preferred to stay inside with a book rather than help with yard work. So sue me.)

As is often the case the first time someone diets, the pounds seemed to melt off, and I wasn’t the only one who noticed. My English teacher asked the school counselor to talk to me, because he feared I was developing an eating disorder. I felt touched at my teacher’s concern, and somewhat elated that I was so much smaller that people were noticing. My father, however, was not touched my my teacher’s concern…he actually seemed mad.

In spite of all that, I thought life was finally going my way. I felt closer to winning my father’s approval, I got to buy new clothes, I got my first serious boyfriend. It felt almost magical. But it was all a lie. I was still the same person, a good girl who felt like she could never be good enough. It was also the beginning of years of yo-yo dieting and feeling that my body was inherently flawed and would never be good enough.

The spin doctors

Weight Watchers says “We know that the teenage years are a critical life stage and opening WW to teens with consent from a parent/guardian is about families getting healthier.” What utter BS. I had “consent” (if by consent you mean “pressure” from a parent/guardian). It had nothing to do with “families getting healthier” and everything to do with me forcing my body into a culturally acceptable size. It meant two years of frozen meals (WW brand, of course) and sad brown bag lunches of half a sandwich and some carrot sticks. It meant shifting value away from my mind and onto my body, which is a dangerous place to place value, because like it or not, our bodies are going to eventually age, which is also not exactly culturally acceptable.

Many of my patients are Weight Watcher refugees, so clearly WW did not work for them. I have some patients who developed eating disorders after a teenage experience with Weight Watchers—almost always at the prompting pressuring of a parent (please not that not all people who go on diets develop eating disorders, but for many people who do develop eating disorders, dieting was a major trigger). Despite how Weight Watchers brands themselves as a “lifestyle program,” it’s still a diet, just as it’s always been, because it involves external restriction and counting. Let’s call a spade a spade.

Erosion of body trust

Weight Watchers gets in the way of actually listening to and trusting your body, and feeling disconnected from, and suspicious of, your body is a crappy way to live. With many of my patients, I find that you can take the person out of Weight Watchers, but you can’t always wrest Weight Watchers out of the person. I’ve had patients eating piles of fruit—when they don’t even really like fruit—because in their era of Weight Watchers, fruit was a “free food.” I’ve had patients eat evening snacks they weren’t hungry for because “Weight Watchers said you have to use all your points by the end of the day.” This is ridiculous, because the reality is that our calorie needs vary from day to day, so sticking to some externally mandated calorie or point level is not natural. Don’t believe me? Check out neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt’s TED talk:

To be fair, some of my patients have had neutral or slightly pleasant experiences with Weight Watchers, but they’ve all regained whatever weight they lost, sometimes even more. What good is that. And then there are my patients who declare something akin to “I would rather gouge my eyes out than ever count a point again.” Amen.

Read More!