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Harpo Speaks —

May 7, 2012

Trigger warning: This is all about weight loss, including screen caps from Weight Watchers blog posts.

Yesterday, in honor of International No Diet Day, The Oprah Magazine shared on Facebook “Weight Loss Advice You Haven’t Heard Before.”

I’m not linking to the article itself because it’s heavily recycled bullshit that doesn’t deserve your time or attention.

But when a magazine claims that they have tips that nobody has ever heard before, I’m more than a little skeptical. Given the perpetual repackaging of weight loss advice in women’s magazines, I had a momentary vision of clicking the link and discovering that doctors were now injecting Oprah Winfrey stem cells into patients.

I have little patience for specious claims about weight loss (aka 99% of them), so I commented:

I posted my comment last night and didn’t expect the comment to see the morning light.

After all, women’s magazines like O get a hefty payoff for promoting the latest and greatest weight loss schemes and International No Dieting Day (INDD) invites you to leave this nonsense behind. But there are times when Oprah’s media empire seems to “get it,” like when they published Robert Holden’s 10-day plan for self-acceptance, which includes a suggestion to stop letting your weight such precedence over your happiness.

If you are like most people, you know exactly what you don’t love about yourself, but you’re vague and uncertain about the ways that you do love yourself. For example, you could easily write a list of the things you don’t like about your body, including the cellulite on your thighs, the size of your feet or the number on the scale, but could you write a list of all the ways you do love yourself?

For this step to self-acceptance, Holden cites an example of a woman who has learned to love herself even though she is 10 pounds over her ideal weight. But this is an easy affirmation. A woman just 10 pounds over her “ideal weight” is probably still in the Normal BMI range.

But would Holden, or O, support self-acceptance for a woman who is 25 pounds over her “ideal weight” or 50 or 100? Or is self-acceptance reserved for those who are close enough to the ideal that they are exempt from the kind of incessant weight cycling that O‘s matriarch, Oprah herself, perpetuates. According to a 2009 article by Paul Campos:

Winfrey’s three-decade-long battle with her body is a classic example of the weight cycling almost all chronic dieters undergo. Her weight has fluctuated between 150 pounds (she achieved this about 20 years ago by losing 67 pounds after eating no solid food for several months) and 237 pounds. Three years ago, during a thin cycle, she weighed 160; today she weighs 200.

As long as this disconnect between message and messenger permeates O‘s DNA, true self-acceptance will never be possible for Oprah’s empire. Until Oprah Winfrey applies unlimited self-acceptance toward herself, such a powerful aspiration will remain out of reach for her readers as well.

This puts O Magazine in a precarious position: either it can truly embrace the philosophy of self-acceptance and forgo the financial sponsorship of commercial dissatisfaction programs OR they can continue to pay lip service to self-acceptance by appropriating and retooling the messages of Body Acceptance to justify their bottom line, as commercial weight loss programs already do.

And the appropriation of International No Diet Day has already begun.

Check out this conversation from a Weight Watchers UK message board from last year, which seem to be a microcosm of mainstream views on INDD.

The last two comments are the most telling. You’ve got one woman who expresses an interest in INDD, but “can’t because she has a weigh in at Weight Watchers the next day. Immediately afterward, another woman claims that since Weight Watchers is not a diet, INDD “doesn’t count” for them.

Ask any commercial weight loss program if they’re a diet and they will vehemently deny it. “We’re not a diet, we’re a lifestyle change,” they will claim. The word “diet” has gone the way of the word “liberal,” having been so tainted by its reputation of failure that nobody wants to identify as such. Weight Watchers customers are simply parroting the talking points they’ve been sold.

For example, dieting means eating the same food day in and day out, according to an undated article published by Weight Watchers,

Remember: Weight Watchers is not a diet – you probably realized that as soon as you started. Having the freedom to eat what we like is one of our favorite parts of the plan, so use that freedom to try new recipes, meals and snacks, as well as treating yourself to old favorites.

Yes, having the freedom to eat what you want means it’s not a diet, even though that freedom is restricted in terms of portion sizes. It’s like the “freedom” an executioner offers you in the choice between hanging or firing squad. And that “freedom” also comes with magic rules:

Figure out the PointsPlus value of your favorite dessert and find a way to work it into your PointsPlus budget. Punch it into the Recipe Builder and look for a healthy substitution. The magic is in the tracking and staying in control.

It’s not a diet, folks, but be sure to track every bite you take!

The other popular claim is that Weight Watchers and Co. aren’t diets because diets are temporary. Instead, commercial weight loss programs are meant to be permanent.

See? Not a diet!

But there are two major flaws with this claim: first is that long-term retention rates for Weight Watchers is horrendous, which is par for course among commercial weight loss programs. In a June 2011 observational study that followed nearly 30,000 patients from Britain’s National Health Service who were referred to Weight Watchers. Patients were given vouchers to attend 12 visits, but just 54% attended all 12 sessions.

But more importantly, among those who attended all 12 visits, the results were quite modest:

Since the paper does not specify the exact weight loss of 12-week participants, we’ll have to speculate that patients lost between 3 kg (7 pounds) and 7 kg (15 pounds).

The paper includes an intriguing chart that shows that the more NHS referrals to Weight Watchers, the less impressive the results:

And that’s why they specify the average weight lost for first-timers (5.4 kg, or 12 pounds), rather than the results of all completers.

So, the other half of the “Weight Watchers is a lifestyle choice” coin is that those who stick with the program won’t lose an impressive amount of weight. In fact, over 80% of Weight Watchers clients will lose somewhere between 5% and 10% of their starting weight after attending 12 sessions.

Just 12% of NHS referrals lost greater than 10% of their starting weight.

Compare these modest expectations with Jennifer Hudson’s 80 pound weight loss, which she boasted about on Oprah. When Oprah asks how much weight Hudson lost, the Weight Watchers representative insisted that it wasn’t about the number on the scale:

Jennifer’s Weight Watchers leader, Liz, explains: “People get wrapped up in the pounds. … The message is: You’ve got to find what feels good for you. Who cares about the number?”

Of course it’s not about the number. Why would Weight Watchers customers care how much weight they lose? And Oprah steps in to say as much:

“We do!” Oprah says. “This is the thing: I understand because I understand the shame of having a heavy number. I’ve been as high as 237, at the doctor’s office lying that I was 230, like those seven pounds made a difference. So, I know that part. But once you’ve [lost the weight], it’s a victory.”

And in what was surely a moment of talk show spontaneity, Hudson conceded:

“I really want to tell it,” Jennifer says. “I’ve lost…80 pounds!”

Later, after Hudson describes dropping from a size 16 to a size 6, Oprah acknowledges that a weight loss like Hudson’s seems impossible to people:

A size six, when you say that to the world, sounds unattainable… Because I wasn’t a size six in the third grade! So, a size six seems like a foreign concept.

Sounds like a foreign concept? It is a foreign concept, Oprah!

In an October 2011 article in The Lancet (PDF), researchers followed 772 overweight and obese adults in a non-blinded randomized, controlled trial. For 12 months, 377 subjects followed the weight loss program and lost an average of 11 pounds.

And in the April 2009 issue of British Nutrition Journal (PDF), researchers reviewed the records 699 Weight Watchers Lifetime Members, defined as customers who meet their goal and maintain it for 6 weeks. Although the study is impressive in its scope, reviewing the results at 1, 2 and 5 years, the findings may disappoint those who see Hudson’s weight loss as inspirational as Oprah:

Mean weight loss of participants in the national sample (n 699) to reach goal weight was 24 pounds. Participants’ mean start weight was 165 pounds; their mean goal weight was 141 pounds. During years 1, 2 and 5, subjects regained on average 4.8, 7.6, and 10.4 pounds, respectively, or 23·8, 37·5, and 62·4 % of their initial weight loss. [Note: I’ve removed the standard deviations and converted all weights from kilograms to pounds to simplify]

So even among the most motivated of the motivated, after five years of following the Weight Watchers philosophy customers can expect to maintain an average weight loss of 14 pounds. With this kind of clinical “proof” of their effectiveness, it’s no wonder Weight Watchers uses the following image for its website:

Now, I have absolutely no problem with those who express a belief in a Higher Power or practice pretty much any form of religion. The nature of the Divine is such that there is no evidence that can support or refute one’s belief in a deity (or deities).

However, there is quantifiable evidence, which Weight Watchers even includes at length, that says Jennifer Hudson’s weight loss is highly unusual. And yet, we are implored to “BELIEVE” in Weight Watchers “Because it works™.”

While that unregistered trademark purports to stand in for its medical research, I’m afraid it’s not enough to make Jennifer Hudson the real face of Weight Watchers.

Instead, I would propose one out of thousands of Weight Watchers clients who began the program inspired by Hudson, believing because it works, but left the program once, twice, three times when they didn’t get the results they were promised.

For example, while searching for mentions of Weight Watchers and International No Diet Day, I stumbled across this May 6, 2010 Weight Watchers blog post regarding INDD from a woman who I’ll call Tina. I’m blocking info to protect her identity:

Tina expresses support for INDD, since she isn’t on a diet, and goes on to boast about how satisfied she is on Weight Watchers. Surely she’s on the path to a permanent lifestyle change, right?

It sure seems so, as she posts in October 2010, she’s been following the program for eight months, albeit inconsistently.

This is the last post from Tina until the New Year, when she admits to falling off the wagon hard:

With renewed resolve, Tina begins the program anew and lasts a month before lamenting how difficult it is to remain committed:

Some time between this February post and April 29, Tina falls off the wagon again, but returns with yet another renewed commitment to Weight Watchers:

Tina’s last blog post is May 10, 2011, just over one year since she learned about INDD:

In the span of a single year, Tina has begun two fresh starts on Weight Watchers, and has fallen off the wagon more times than a drunk pioneer.

For Weight Watchers, this is the success story that really matters: the success of magical thinking that brings them repeat customers time after time after time.

The only benefit Tina received from her relationship with Weight Watchers was a single year of multiple weight cycles that have wreaked untold havoc on her body. And thanks to the magical thinking promoted by Weight Watchers, Tina blames herself for her inability to commit to the program and reach her goal weight, rather than the well-documented failure of the Weight Watchers program.

International No Dieting Day is a relatively young holiday that seeks to distance people one day at a time from this magical thinking that permeates the global culture. And the first step is to realize that no matter what the program, no matter what the claims, long-term weight loss is an enormous waste of your valuable time.

Or as the brilliant and everly-awesome Michelle Allison (aka The Fat Nutritionist) said in her recent awesome appearance in The Telegram:

“Trying to eat less makes us, as a population, more preoccupied with food than we otherwise would be. And that redirects mental and physical resources you would otherwise apply towards having a gratifying life.”

If O magazine is serious about promoting self-acceptance and self-love, then it needs to start by teaching its readers that Jennifer Hudson’s long-term weight loss is an anomaly, not an inspiration; that weight loss will not lead to happiness; and that there is nothing new under the weight loss sun.

In what will either turn out to be a major shift in philosophy or a profound disappointment, Oprah Magazine‘s Facebook moderator responded to my comment:

Although the response is nice, it’s the bare minimum I would hope for. I don’t want O to eschew Super Secret Weight Loss Tips just on INDD, but to promote radical self-acceptance on every day and in every issue. Healthy eating is a great thing to promote, but when it comes at the promise of melting pounds, it’s still a major problem.

But at least we now have a metric by which to judge Oprah Magazine on the next International No Diet Day.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Kala permalink
    May 7, 2012 1:00 pm

    While we’re at it, maybe I should make a vow with myself that I’ll shoot myself in the foot if I snarf down more than a single serving of craisins at any point in the future. It’s my new Most Dangerous Game, since I’ve got a bag in the cabinet right now.

    • May 8, 2012 5:51 pm

      In a world where craisens kill comes one woman’s struggle against the tyranny of dehydrated fruit products…


  2. May 7, 2012 3:29 pm

    The idea that Weight Watchers tells you to believe despite their program failing at long term weight loss, reminds me of a Marilyn Manson t-shirt I owned. On the back it said beLIEve.

    • May 8, 2012 5:53 pm

      It’s almost like they’ve given up trying to legitimize their program. Their next slogan will probably be “Trust us because you have no other choice.”


  3. vesta44 permalink
    May 7, 2012 4:28 pm

    We need a t-shirt that says “Don’t beLIEve in DIEts”.

  4. lifeonfats permalink
    May 7, 2012 6:33 pm

    Any way of eating which makes you count points and calories and makes you go to meetings and get weighed IS a diet. Weight Watchers needs to stop lying to people. And of course the health department I work for wants to bring Weight Watchers into their workplace as a way of “combating obesity.” Good thing I don’t work in their administrative offices—I wouldn’t join if they paid me. And one place I worked for that tried to start a WW group had to stop it because not enough people are interested. Contrary to popular belief, there ARE people out there who would rather eat what they like and not worry about the number on the scale. Good for you Shannon for admonishing O for their weight loss obsession.

    • May 8, 2012 6:01 pm

      You would think companies would refer to the research before investing in something like this, but when it comes to weight loss, anecdotes are enough, sadly. And that’s the way WW and Jenny like it. Their advertising campaigns are nothing more than multi-million dollar anecdotes.


  5. Gen permalink
    May 7, 2012 6:47 pm

    I find it incredibly disturbing and sad that people demonise their basic need for, and human right to food (see the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). I tend to think it can be argued that weight loss programs and bariatric surgery violate that human right.
    Incidentally, I spent INDD discovering new music, napping, playing with my cat and watching videos with my boyfriend, all while wasting not a single moment being concerned about dieting. Fuck diets. Fuck that bullshit. There are far better things to do with one’s time and resources, just as Michelle says.

    • May 8, 2012 6:06 pm

      I think WLS is one of the most inhumane violations of the hippocratic oath. WLS is supposed to be a last-ditch surgery for those who are extremely large, have serious comorbidities and no other options. But it has become just another commercial option for those frustrated by the failure of traditional weight loss programs. We will learn inn the coming decades just what kind of damage we’ve inflicted upon WLS survivors, but until then, we have to keep educating and keep speaking our.


  6. LittleBigGirl permalink
    May 8, 2012 1:57 am

    I just wanted to thank you for the awesome phrase/term “commercial dissatisfaction programs”. That is the best definition of diet plans that I have ever heard! I think it also applies to all ads for clothing, hair products, beauty products, and everything else that companies try to sell us by making us feel we aren’t good enough unless we have it. Trying to sell something by inducing self-hatred and insecurity in your customer? Diabolical.

    • May 8, 2012 6:09 pm

      It really is the other unmentioned motivator, besides sex and death. In contemporary society, to be unappealing is such a horrific concept that we will pay hand over fist to “fix” nature’s “mistakes.” Today, homogeneity is a commodity.


  7. elengendros permalink
    May 8, 2012 4:24 am

    “Trying to sell something by inducing self-hatred and insecurity in your customer? Diabolical.”

    This is how the fashion magazanines work.

    I am not in a permanent diet, but I try to watch what I eat because if I eat i get weight, and losing this weight is more difficult with my age. I have not a super-wasteful metabolism so if I eat all I want, I will be fatter than I feel comfortable.
    If I wanto to stay at my current weight I will have to be in this kind of pseudo diet forever, but I don’t feel like this is a heavy burden or a huge waste of time. For me it is worth it.


    • MrsS permalink
      May 8, 2012 11:47 am

      it’s not a “pseudo” diet if you’re eating healthfully and you’re comfortable. Now if you’re starving all the time, maybe you need to do some reassessing.

    • May 8, 2012 6:13 pm

      Health and weight loss are two separate issues. As you said, you are trying to remain below a certain weight for your comfort. That is separate from health. Health would be if you were on a diet to control your blood sugars or lipids or pressure. But being comfortable and being healthy are not the same. The key to health is finding those healthy lifestyle choices that you enjoy our get personal benefit from. Anything less won’t last


  8. MrsS permalink
    May 8, 2012 11:46 am

    Atchka, I’m so disappointed. In your next article, you’ll probably say that it’s a waste of money to buy the Brazil butt-lift DVD!

    • May 8, 2012 6:15 pm

      I only recommend it if they are real Brazilians who come to my house and lift my butt.


      • MrsS permalink
        May 8, 2012 8:42 pm

        Hilarious! You are too funny!

  9. elengendros permalink
    May 9, 2012 1:38 am

    “Health and weight loss are two separate issues. As you said, you are trying to remain below a certain weight for your comfort”

    You are totally right.

    MrsS. You can be in a diet without starving yourself, from the moment that you restrict your calories you are in a diet. I don’t find any differences between “eating healthfully “no empty calories, no refined flour, no cookies, dark leaf vegetables, little red meat, avoiding fats”, and being in a diet “”no empty calories, no refined flour, no cookies, dark leaf vegetables, little red meat, avoiding fats”.

    • MrsS permalink
      May 9, 2012 1:38 pm

      Elengendros, I think that we’re in a potayto-potahto discussion. I respect your viewpoint.

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