Reflections on having lost weight and kept it off for 35 years

October 28, 2014 is the 35th anniversary of my reaching lifetime status with Weight Watchers. I have never been more than 2 pounds over my goal weight in that time, and I have 35 years of weigh-in books to prove it.

I also was an employee of Weight Watchers for 9 years (2000-2009).

In addition, I’m a member of the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR). This is a registry of people who have lost at least 30 pounds and have kept it off for at least a year. The object of the registry is to find out what people who have long-term weight loss success have in common and see if there is anything others can learn from that. (The hope is/was that if everyone overweight follows the same habits, they’ll all be successful, too.)

Still, despite all recent efforts, the majority of residents in the USA remain overweight or obese. Some commentators have said that we simply need to admit defeat and accept it. (One article I read even said it was impossible to lose weight and keep it off long term…another was a little more moderate and said that it was nice that the NWCR people had lost weight, but the NWCR research had no applicability to the average overweight person.)

I’ve been thinking for a long time on the reasons most people haven’t been losing weight and have come up with some conclusions (my opinion only).

First of all, obesity is not simply a physical/biological problem. It also has social and behavioral aspects that are significant and cannot be neglected in searching for solutions.

Scoffers will often maintain that obese people are lazy. I maintain the opposite is true: many individuals are overweight because they are busy: busy with their families (especially if they’re caregivers to children or the elderly), and busy with their jobs (especially if they’re working 2 or 3 jobs to pay the rent). Losing weight is not easy. It takes a lot of effort. The fact is, most people (including me) need a lot of help in order to successfully lose weight and keep it off, simply because it is so hard.

Health professionals are just starting to get a clue about this. Whereas earlier, many naively thought that all there was to weight loss was “eat less and exercise” or “just push your plate away” (and some still do), they are beginning to talk about an “obesogenic” environment. And it is. Food is everywhere. Food is advertised heavily. Food manufacturers deliberately make their food enticing to the taste buds…and the taste buds favor high-fat, high-sugar foods. Healthy foods are expensive and can take a lot of preparation, and can be inaccessible (“food deserts”). A lot of people don’t know how to cook – and home-cooked food can be significantly healthier than food served at restaurants or fast-food places. Those whose taste buds have been accustomed to high-fat, high-sugar foods can find healthy foods such as vegetables and nonfat dairy products tasteless, and not consume them.

Then there’s the social area. There’s a lot of social pressure to eat. Family members who equate love with food can react negatively if their food isn’t eaten. Others want to give you permission to overeat (“oh, going off your diet one day won’t hurt” or “just have a bite”). Significant others can become jealous of or feel uncomfortable with a partner or friend who is losing weight and try to sabotage weight loss efforts.

Food is not just food (nourishment). Individuals can see it as a companion, as well as turn to it for comfort (the problem with comfort food is not that it doesn’t work; it’s that it does). People tie food with other activities, so that the activity seems empty without the food (I’ve met people who find it almost unthinkable to watch a movie without eating popcorn, or to sponsor foodless birthday parties and other celebrations).

The enormous social stigma of overweight also is a major contributing factor. Individuals can be in denial (as I was for years), see the scale as an enemy (I sure didn’t want to get weighed when I was overweight), and therefore avoid getting help. Or, if they attempt to get help, waste time and money and endanger their health by going for quick-weight-loss schemes. (Currently bariatric surgery is offered as a solution. While it does have some degree of success, it is neither quick nor easy and has the potential for complications. Further, I personally know of cases where a bariatric patient has regained all the weight, and then some.)

How about activity? Most people find exercise boring and tedious. There have been advances in this area, yes. Devices such as standing desks and treadmill stations help, and more has been done to make exercise fun and enticing. But there’s still work to be done.

So, in order to tackle the obesity problem, I believe society needs to:

  1. De-stigmatize obesity
  2. Change the obesogenic environment
  3. a. Make healthy food cheap, available, tasty, and effortless to prepare

     b. Teach minimal cooking skills to everyone

  1. Change society’s attitude toward food
  2. Train people ways to deal with anger, frustration, sadness, and trauma other than reaching for a quick snack
  3. Make activity fun and enticing

Can this be done? Based on the attitude change toward smoking (which took decades), I think it could; however, this is not going to be quick or easy.

Back when I was overweight, one of my attitudes that was delaying my start into a weight loss program was the wish and the hope that science would invent a formula which would enable me to eat to my heart’s content, and not gain any weight. I’m glad now that I went ahead and lost weight anyway, because it’s 35 years later and science still hasn’t stepped up!

However, though I applaud all that’s been done so far to address the obesity problem, I now believe that it is essential for science to do just that. Because there are individuals (and I have met them), who, for biological reasons beyond their control, cannot and will not lose weight no matter what lifestyle, behavioral, or eating changes they make.

While researchers are working on this, doctors can be a lot more helpful than they are. The fact is, the average Weight Watchers employee has more knowledge and experience in the scientific, behavioral, and social aspects of weight loss than the average doctor (and doctors admit they get little training in obesity issues – except for the obesity specialists, of course). It’s long past time that physicians stop blaming obese people for their obesity, realize that healthy weight loss requires expert help, and actively extending that help in an empathetic and effective manner.

Again, these are my opinions only, but even though I’m no longer a Weight Watchers employee, I continue to read extensively on the subject of obesity and healthy living (as well as completing a one-year training course as a health coach), and I believe that a commonsense approach can work.