The diets in my life have come and gone: the grapefruit diet, no-fat diet, juice cleanses and Atkins. But through it all, there's always been Weight Watchers. With its point system and lo-cal dinners, weigh-ins and group therapy vibe, Weight Watchers offered an all-encompassing road map to controlled eating. I tried it, Betty Draper of "Mad Men" tried it, you probably know someone who's been there. It was a diet, yes, but also more: a structure to control the chaos of disordered eating.
Sadly, as many of us know, no single "diet" really works. Without a wholesale lifestyle shift, and replacing old, destructive patterns with healthier habits — a much slower and sometimes painstaking process — one failed diet begets another and another.
Reading the obituary of Jean Nidetch, a founder of Weight Watchers who died this week at 91, made me realize, yet again, the obsessive and punishing ways we compel ourselves to diet, and how, deep down, food and weight are as much about emotion as physiology. The New York Times described Nidetch as "pumpkin-shaped all her young life" and "raised in a family that ate as a consolation for disappointment." Here's more:
She was born Jean Evelyn Slutsky in Brooklyn on Oct. 12, 1923, the daughter of David and Mae Rodin Slutsky. Her father was a cabdriver and her mother a manicurist. Her compulsive eating habits began as a child, she recalled in a memoir...
“I don’t really remember, but I’m positive that whenever I cried, my mother gave me something to eat,” she wrote. “I’m sure that whenever I had a fight with the little girl next door, or it was raining and I couldn’t go out, or I wasn’t invited to a birthday party, my mother gave me a piece of candy to make me feel better.”
And that launched a life of binge eating and yo-yo dieting. Eventually, though, it pushed Nidetch to seek an escape: through tough-love control and, well, vigilant weight watching.
But we're not in Brooklyn with the Slutskys anymore. Diets have evolved. Lifestyle Medicine is all the rage, and a far more holistic, Pollan-esque approach to food is taking hold. ("Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.") Also, it turns out, not all calories are alike.
Are we then, at long last, in a post-diet era? Can we all just agree that diets do not work in the long term? I asked Jean Fain, a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist and the author of “The Self-Compassion Diet” for her thoughts on the passing of a diet icon and where Weight Watchers stands today. Here's what she wrote:
As the embodiment of Weight Watchers, Jean Nidetch did a lot of good. Her success (she lost 72 pounds and kept it off) inspired waist watchers to stop looking to medical professionals to solve their eating issues and to start finding inspiration, strength and direction from those who understand the problem far better – other successful dieters.
With a little support from fellow Weight Watchers, members not only learn that yes, they can lose weight, they find out they can have a lot more fun as group, rather than try to go it alone.
Inadvertently, Nidetch also did real harm with her eating system and the conditional support that goes with it. (Members get applause and other positive reinforcements for losing weight, for instance, but little or nothing for gaining weight.)
While Weight Watchers insiders claim their program is more successful than other diets, studies that compare various diets to each other do not support that. Whether or not the international slimming organization actually has a 16% success rate, (a number quoted in the book “Secrets from the Eating Lab” by Traci Mann) truth be told, the overwhelming majority regain what they lose and sometimes more. Diets like the one the organization promotes can exacerbate the very eating problems they were hoping to resolve. When that happens, those who most need support are least likely to get it because they’re too ashamed to go to meetings, let alone get weighed in.
More than a Weight Watchers ice cream bar, a lo-cal recipe or the conditional support of a group that fails to acknowledge the shame that members carry, what waist watchers need more than anything is a heaping helping of self-compassion.
Compassion for yourself is the missing ingredient, the antidote to this and most other weight-loss programs because most plans revolve around self-discipline, deprivation and neglect. You’re supposed to stick to the plan no matter what. If you’re starving, keep eating tiny portions. If you’re exhausted, keep moving – no pain, no gain. Going on vacation? Keep counting points, calories or carbs. It’s not a very compassionate (or realistic) approach; it’s not very effective. And it’s no fun.
Even the new, improved, more flexible Weight Watchers food plan requires you stick to it no matter what. You wouldn't treat a child with this level of rigidity, so why impose it on yourself? Only when you treat yourself like a friend or a loved one, with kindness and flexibility, can you learn what’s really needed — to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full, and find your healthy, sustainable weight. Often it takes a lifetime.