Defending Weight Watchers

I will confess now that I have not read Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue. But I came upon an interview with Susie Orbach in Marie Claire last week. And now that I have confessed that while I have not read a seminal book in body-issue feminism, I have read the latest Marie Claire, let me defend myself by saying that I read the Marie Claire at the hairdresser’s, and not even my hairdresser’s, but my husband’s hairdresser’s. The fact that I went with him to his hairdresser’s for the specific purpose of reading women’s magazines I forbid myself from buying at the grocery store is neither here nor there.

I was a bit bothered by this interview. It seems that Susie Orbach is on the verge of a class-action suit against Weight Watchers. I think her reasoning is a little bit unfair.

I should note that I started the Weight Watchers program about two and a half months ago, and while I have my complaints, I am happy overall, especially since I just hit my 10% goal (losing 10% of your original weight) this week. (I got a keychain. It’s very exciting. But the pro-Weight Watchers feelings in this column are not because of the keychain. I read this interview before that.)

In the interview, she claims that dieting is bad for people because it assigns an emotional force towards certain “forbidden” foods, whose appeal is then enhanced. She also claims that we need to reclaim our ability to tell when we are “hungry” and what we are hungry for, and to eat that. And to stop when we’re done.

It’s not so much that I think she’s wrong. I do think that, in general, when a specific thing is forbidden, it becomes more appealing. I also think it would be lovely if one could simply eat when one feels this primal thing called “hunger,” and could identify what the body wants to eat at that moment, and then . . . stop. But I think that, in her first point, she’s not really researching how Weight Watchers itself works, nor is she acknowledging that the foods that are forbidden by a lot of diets are in fact responsible for making us gain more weight than we ought to, nor that their deliciousness might make them just as if not more appealing than their forbiddenness. And the whole “eat when you’re hungry and then stop” thing? A pipe dream rivalled in ridiculousness only by my plans to become dictator of this country and set everything to rights (See my forthcoming column, “America Once I’ve Taken Over”).

Weight Watchers, for those of you who don’t know, has two plans, the flex plan and the core plan. The flex plan – or “points” plan, is the most widely known and commonly used. It’s the one in which one has a daily budget of food points one is permitted – and required – to use, based on one’s height, weight, age, and general daily activity. Every food item in the world (ideally, though in practice this is still a work in progress) has a points value. So you can eat any food at all, but only as much as you have points that day. Weight Watchers does stress that you should eat lots of fruits, veggies, and lean proteins, but it doesn’t tell you that you must. For instance, before I was on this diet, I used to make this great homemade macaroni and cheese. It turns out that one serving of it is 22 points. I get 27 points a day right now, and I’m pretty big. So the point is, I can have the mac and cheese. I just can only have five more points that day. An apple, a yogurt, and 10 carrot sticks with 1 tbsp of hummus, for instance. (I’ve been forbidding myself this mac and cheese, but now that I look at it, I could survive the day on an apple, yogurt, and 10 carrot sticks with 1 tbsp of hummus, if I got macaroni and cheese at the end of that day. Hmm . . .) In addition to the daily allowance – which, remember, is both permitted and required – you get 35 extra points a week, to use at your discretion. Like, let’s say, you want that macaroni and cheese, but you can’t survive the rest of the day on an apple, yogurt, and 10 carrot sticks with 1 tbsp of hummus. You then dip in to that extra 35.

The core plan I don’t know much about. Basically, it’s a list of foods you can have, and you can have any amount, but you have to assess how hungry you are and try to only eat when you’re a 2 or 3 on a scale of 10 in terms of fullness. And you, too, have 35 flex points, for the weeks you can’t live without something not on the list.*

In any even, it sounds like Weight Watchers is precisely trying to address some of the issues Susie Orbach raises about diets. One plan focuses on not forbidding any given food as such, and the other plan focuses on teaching you when you’re hungry and when you’re full, and while being on either plan is sort of mutually exclusive, using the strategies from each plan is not, and you can switch between them at will.

She claims that diet companies depend upon recidivism for their clientele, and that companies should take social responsibility for their products. Certainly, diet companies do make scads of money because people go off of them only to gain weight again. But it seems unfair to accuse a product of no longer working if one is no longer using it. If I complained that my Dove soap was not bringing out my Real Beauty, and it turned out my Dove soap had been sitting under my sink for weeks, unused, would the company really be responsible for that? But Susie Orbach claims that diets do promise to make you the size you want to be, the effects of which ought to last.

I also agree with urging corporations to be socially responsible. But I think diet companies do not currently need to use underhanded tricks to get us to gain weight again, and I think the corporations that need to take responsibility for their this are the food-producing companies, not the diet companies. Once we stop getting trans fats and hydrogenated corn syrup and various other hidden, bad-for-you things in our typical and common foods, perhaps then Weight Watchers and their ilk will be forced to look for strategies that do make people lose and gain, lose and gain in an endless cycle. But for now, the food companies have got that covered.

Evolution seems to have that covered, too. From everything I’ve read, one of the biggest problems with food and diet is that we do not live the way our bodies are designed to live. We (we first-worlders, we middle- and upper-class Americans and Brits and the like, I mean) live in a world of abundance and extreme variety, but we were designed for cyclical abundance and then scarcity. We are designed to crave fat and sugar, because those will store in our bodies so nicely, when we’ll need them for the coming scarce period. And our bodies simply will not acknowledge that the “scarce” period has not arrived for many a year, and is not likely to do so tomorrow. (For all we know, our bodies are smarter than we are. It’s best not to get me started on the apocalypse that is clearly pending once we hit peak oil. But perhaps I’ve discovered the subliminal source of my urge to pack on as many extra pounds as possible., but that may be my subliminal reason for packing on so much extra food.)

That’s why it seems flip for her to claim that a healthy woman should eat like a healthy woman should pee – when her body tells her it’s time. For one thing, it’s quite physically impossible to pee if you don’t have to pee. It is not impossible to stuff your face if you’re not hungry, more’s the pity. On an evolutionary basis, apparently, our bodies do not want to believe we’re full if there’s sugar or fat to be had – we might need it later! Furthermore, it’s virtually impossible to weed out all of the feelings that seem to signal to us, “Eat something!” It’s impossible to separate out the ones that are “true” hunger and the ones that are “just in case there’s no food later,” or, “this will make me feel better about not getting that job,” or, “this day would be more exciting with some cheese in it,” or even, “mmm, that smells delicious.”

But my point is, we’re not really so good, we humans, at distinguishing what we want from why we want it. Even with peeing. How many people have had the following exchange with their mothers?

Mom: We’re getting in the car now. It’s a two-hour drive, so go to the bathroom now.
You: I don’t have to go.
Mom: Just go.
You: But I don’t have to go!
Mom: Just go!
You: But, Mom! I don’t have to go! Don’t you think I would know if I had to go?
Mom: Just GO!
You: But, MOOOOM!
You: Fine! But I don’t have to go!
. . .
Mom: Did you go?
You: Yes.

I know. All of you have. So if we can’t separate rebelling against Mom from not having to pee, how can we be expected to separate “mmm, delicious,” from, “I’m hungry”? It can’t be done. Or it can, but it would take so much willpower and discipline, you might as well go on Weight Watchers.

Finally, she claims that one should only have to diet once, and then you should be at your best weight forever, and the fact that people are constantly on and off diets is evidence that they don’t work. Isn’t it precisely the attitude that you should only have to do it once that ruins so many diets? Well, that’s why Weight Watchers encourages you not to think of this as a diet, but as a change in your approach to eating (incidentally, exactly what Susie Orbach recommends), and encourages you to be a lifetime member once you’ve hit your goal weight by offering free membership to those who keep themselves at that goal weight.

I don’t mean to sound like a Weight Watchers cheerleader. Perhaps I’ll get into my complaints about them some other time. I simply don’t think that Weight Watchers in particular is guilty of the crimes Susie Orbach accuses it of committing.

*Please at all times keep in mind that I’m not employed by Weight Watchers in any capacity. I’m just a lay person trying to explain it all to the best of my ability. For actual information on the Weight Watchers plan, please consult their website.