Sunday, March 9, 2014

Curmudgeon Corner: Weight loss for fun and profit. Mostly profit.

-PaulH- via Flickr
Oh, leave me alone, already. Two posts about losing weight in two months hardly constitutes turning this into a dieting blog.

Yes, I'm once again doing the Lifestyle Change Minuet. This makes my 974th attempt, give or take, to get my weight into the "normal" range. I went on my first diet in junior high; I lost 27 lbs. and still wasn't within the normal weight range for my height. (Yes, I still remember the number of pounds I lost on that first diet.) In the decades since, I have tried a number of weight loss programs -- everything from Nutri-System (where they provide you with pre-measured food packets, all of it laced with protein powder, and tell you not to eat any bananas) to Geneen Roth's suggestions (my favorite, which actually is excellent advice: "Eat sitting down in a calm environment. This does not include the car") to counting fat grams under a dietician's care to Weight Watchers. Weight Watchers has been the most successful program for me, in terms of the aggregate number of pounds lost -- I'm up to 100+ lbs. for all the various times I've signed up over the past ten or twelve years, including the 14.6 lbs. I've lost so far this go-round -- so I'm doing it again.

All told over the course of my life, I have lost probably hundreds of pounds -- and I have never, ever reached my goal weight. I don't expect to get there this time, either.

Because here is the thing about weight loss programs: If they worked and kept working, then America wouldn't have a problem with obesity. Everybody would be thin. And then the people in the diet industry would all be out of work. So it's in their best interest to design their programs so that their customers have a little bit of success, and maybe even a lot of success. But the deck is stacked against us for a number of reasons (portion creep among them). So we will always be back.

The Weight Watchers program is one of the best of a bad lot. When you pay your money (and it ain't cheap -- the 17-week Weight Watchers At Work program I'm in cost me $186), they give you a two-digit number. This is the number of points' worth of food you are allowed to eat each day. (Your points-per-day drop as you lose weight; as a friend said jokingly, they punish you for being successful.) You also get access to a website (although depending on your iteration of the program, you may have to pay a monthly fee for the site access) that includes a database of hundreds of thousands of food items. The site includes a place where you can list every bit of food that has gone into your mouth, and it will tell you how many points you've eaten and how many you have left for the day.  You can even type in your personal recipes and the online calculator will tell you how many points there are in each serving. And they have a smartphone app with a barcode reader that's tied to the food database. (This beats the old days, when they handed you a sort of cardboard slide rule and a booklet at your first meeting, and you had to keep track of your food on paper.) They give you some weekly fudge-factor points, and you get extra points if you exercise. But that's the program in a nutshell.

But that's not all there is to Weight Watchers. They also produce cookbooks with point values listed for each recipe, cooking tools designed to help measure portion sizes, and a FitBit-type activity monitor. They also sell food under their brand -- lunch-sized entrees, snack foods in two-point single-serving packets, "ice cream" treats, and so on.

It's the Weight Watchers-branded foods that make me crazy. They are not healthy. The lunch entrees are loaded with salt and chemicals to make up for the lack of fat, the two-point snack foods are jam-packed with artificial sweeteners and other chemical additives, and the "ice cream" ingredients list is mostly unpronounceable.

Sure, the foods appeal to Americans whose palates are used to the chemically-processed sugar/salt/fat American diet. People at my meeting buy boxes of them. But shouldn't Weight Watchers be setting the bar higher? Wouldn't it make more sense for them to sell really healthy foods under their brand? How about Weight Watchers-branded produce? Or fruits sporting "0 points!" Weight Watchers stickers? Because even though they tell you that you can eat anything you want (as long as you count the points), it doesn't take long before you realize that it's really pretty easy to beat the Tyranny of the Points System: you just have to quit eating full-fat dairy and anything fried; cut way back on your consumption of grains, sweets, and alcohol; and load up your plate with fruits and veggies, most of which have zero points.

But, see, if they sold really healthy foods, they wouldn't make as much money. And if people broke their dependence on processed foods, then they wouldn't fall off the wagon as easily, gain back all the weight they lost, and need to join up again.

And yes, even knowing all that, I joined up again.

Stay tuned. I'm sure I'll have more to complain about as the weeks go by.

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A few bits of business: As promised, the Crosswind e-book edition is now 99 cents; Undertow is on schedule for release March 20th; and I'm busy planning the Facebook virtual beach party in celebration of the launch. Y'all come!

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These moments of curmudgeonly blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.
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