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Things I learned from 11 trips to Weight Watchers

Recently Weight Watchers announced plans to offer a free six-week program to teenagers aged 13-17 this coming summer.

As someone who made four trips to Weight Watchers before the age of 18, then seven more up until 38, I have thoughts on this topic.

Part of me wants to believe that Weight Watchers had good intentions and didn’t just gather around the table brainstorming ways to capture the next generation of Watchers of Weight. Yet there is no getting around it. Weight Watchers is a big corporation seeking a big profit, and their business model depends on repeat customers. They believe the children are the future.

You may be asking, what’s the big deal? Aren’t Weight Watchers just trying to help kids be healthy? What’s wrong with that, eh?

This tweet echoed my thoughts:

And this one:

I’m not a health professional, so my thoughts are purely those of a teenage WW frequent flyer.

I want to stress that this was my experience and that dieting with Weight Watchers was just one factor in a jolly cocktail of things that shaped that experience.

Like so many folks I’ve met who have eating disorders or disordered eating, I first went to Weight Watchers as a young teen accompanied by a well-intentioned parent. I have nothing but understanding and compassion for their decision. This was the 90s and the diet culture was all-pervasive. Weight Watchers was seen as The Sensible Option.

Here is what I learned from teenage dieting:

How to spend every waking moment thinking about food, either with full focus or as an anxious background rumbling. How to mistrust my own appetite and worry about every mouthful.

How to eat less without anyone noticing. How to eat more without anyone noticing. How to quietly open the freezer in the middle of the night to steal cookies.

How to stop eating after Monday recess because Monday night was weigh-in. How not to drink anything either, even in an Aussie summer. How to eat and eat and eat after weigh-in then start again on Tuesday morning. How to stew on my Failure all week long if the number was Bad.

How to dread or completely avoid school trips and birthdays and slumber parties because they were dens of temptation and I wouldn’t know what I was allowed to eat so I wouldn’t eat much. How to not concentrate on conversations because I was too busy counting the remaining pieces of pizza and wondering if I could sneak one after everyone was asleep.

How to say no to social occasions, pool parties, sports teams, hobbies and big opportunities (hello exchange year in Japan) because I was so ashamed of my body and would do anything to avoid letting people see it move.

How to be with my friends but never really be there.

Once I went off to university with unfettered access to food, the binge/restrict cycle kicked into a much higher gear. Almost annually I’d slink back to Weight Watchers, full of remorse. I’d always been a dedicated student so it irritated the hell out of me that I’d still not aced the programme, despite having tried since I was ten. It was a Sensible Plan! Pills and shakes and grapefruit plans were the crazy stuff, this was just common sense! Clearly I wasn’t working hard enough.

So as an adult I’d rock up with my pencils freshly sharpened, determined to finally score the elusive Lifetime Membership card and WIN at weight loss, dagnabbit!

Of course there was that one time I managed to stick at it for a good few years and lose a great deal of weight. It took a further ten years of lurching up and down the scale to finally appreciate that dieting was not helpful and that maybe I needed to dive a wee bit deeper.

There was one final trip to Weight Watchers, at Inverness in 2015. I lasted one meeting. They demonstrated how to measure a cup of dried pasta and every fibre of my being finally screamed, Abort mission!

I want to reiterate that this was my experience as a teenager and Weight Watchers was only one piece of the puzzle. I also appreciate that some people find Weight Watchers et al to be very helpful for them. But this post is not about those people.

I’ve read so much research about the link between dieting and the development of eating disorders and the long term effects of weight cycling that I can’t ignore the evidence.

Also, as someone who wrote about the pursuit of weight loss publicly for a long period, I want to be open about the reality of my experience over the years.

Two weeks ago I sat in a room full of dieticians and psychologists who were doing a professional training workshop here at Green Mountain at Fox Run, where I’m currently staying to work on my binge eating. Weight Watchers was the hot topic du jour and it was exciting to hear such passionate conversation.

It was also heartening to hear them talk about their work and how they’re embracing new ideas to help people beyond the scale. There are more troops on the ground, which is great because the overwhelming majority of teenagers won’t grow up to have the privilege and resources to go somewhere like Green Mountain if they find themselves struggling with an eating disorder.

Apparently Weight Watchers are now reconsidering their plans in response to the #WakeUpWeightWatchers wave of protest from health professionals on social media. I am curious to hear what this new plan will entail. Dudes, if you need some ideas… step one: change your name!

Again, I’m not a health professional. I can only think of what would have been helpful to hear as a kid, and what I wish we could help kids everywhere today hear too. That humans come in many shapes and sizes. That your body is smart and can actually tell you when it’s hungry and when it’s done, no app required. That a clunky piece of metal cannot dictate your worth. That there is joy to be found in food and movement. That your young, still-growing body is not a problem.

Updated to add a link above to this study, as referenced by Kari Anderson in her Psychology Today article.

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About Shauna Reid

Ahoy there! I’m an author, copywriter and old school blogger. I love telling stories about life and helping my clients to tell theirs. Find out more about me and how we can work together.

Want to say hello? I’m on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.


32 thoughts on “Things I learned from 11 trips to Weight Watchers

  1. Interesting read Shauna. I too dieted on and off from age 10 having been put on a diet by the doctor. I remember telling the teacher at school that I was only allowed two egg sized potatoes and being made to have more. I did everything from calorie counting, corned beef and coleslaw vinaigrette, slimming world when 16 ( I put on weight) and weight watchers on line. I did lose a couple of stones but don’t feel it helped me to make the permanent lifestyle changes needed. I found it restrictive and eventually depressing, feeling deprived of”normality” whatever that means. Sorry for the ramble but at the age of 59 I am trying again but not following a “plan”, but looking more at wellbeing alongside the weight. I hope to be a healthy weight for the first time in 50 years for my 60th birthday.

    1. Oh Joanna! I feel for little Joanna and those tiny potatoes. My goodness. I just want to give you a massive hug. I always enjoy your comments and I know you are an awesome woman, hope you can find some peace with all this stuff. Wishing you well for your birthday year! xxox

      1. Bless you Shauna and thank you. All of this can be very isolating as we know too well. A massive hug is very welcome. I know I won’t give up on trying to get to a healthy weight and try for a healthy lifestyle alongside. I appreciate your time in replying individually, and your honesty, integrity and encouragement. Keep smiling lovely lady, the world is a better place for having you in it. xxx😀

  2. Shauna–I sincerely wish I had an answer as to why WW doesn’t seem to work for many of us. It IS a reasonable program of losing weight and doesn’t dump you as soon as you have hit goal and need to maintain FOREVER. I too am a multiple WW member starting back in 1973, when I was 21 years old. You do the math–Here I am at 67, still trying to figure this out. My one conclusion: I am a food addict. Like you I obsess over the leftover pizza and the cookies stored in the freezer, mistakenly thinking that would keep me from eating them. I lost BIG weight back in 2010/11, but have experienced multiple “minor” regains in the years since hitting goal. A couple times I used the WW program to get back to goal even tho I did not use it in my original 178-lb. loss. I honestly don’t think WW creates eating disorders. Perhaps it makes them worse. But let’s face it, we were already obsessing over food long before we joined and unfortunately I, at least, seem doomed to have to deal with this obsession for the rest of my life. Sometimes I wonder if fighting weight is worth all this effort, guilt, and deprivation especially at my age, and then I realize I might not even be alive today if I had not lost that original 178 lbs. Today I’m 60 lbs over my goal weight again and searching for that motivation and determination that seems to be fleeting. Maybe another try with the new WW program is in order? That free chicken along with the free fruit is pretty appealing–Which I’m smart enough to realize was corporate’s goal when they changed it up yet again. I don’t know about your opinion, but it doesn’t look like Oprah has reached her goal weight either.

    1. I feel you, Pam!

      “But let’s face it, we were already obsessing over food long before we joined” – Not so in my case. I had a perfectly normal relationship with food until I was put on a diet as a child.

      I don’t have an opinion about Oprah’s weight – I only hope that she can find peace because she is an incredible human being.

  3. Shauna, I love reading your blogs, and the book, because its like reading about my own life. Although I didn’t join WW for the first time until I was in my late 30’s I have been multiple times now. I don’t think WW caused my issues with food, I’ve had them all my life, but I also don’t think they really help solve them either, as you pointed out they are a business and their ultimate goal is to make money, if their program worked for everyone they would be out of business. Through my work I am now enrolled in a program where I met regularly with a nutritionist and the goal of this program is to make those lifelong habits that will keep you healthy. I was doing well when we were meeting weekly, but then I moved into the monthly meeting stage and started doing not so good. I realized I need more regular accountability. I looked into the new WW Freestyle program and was pleasantly surprised to learn about the changes they’ve made. So I rejoined. Over the years of dieting, eating healthy, etc. one thing I learned is that I need protein to feel satisfied. Everyone needs protein of course, but I can’t be hungry and eat an apple and be ok, I need some protein with it. The last time I tried WW I quit because I felt like I was being punished for eating protein (too many points used). Now that lean proteins are 0 points as well as fruits and most veggies I feel like I can eat healthy and be satisfied, and so far its working. But I also know that even with their “Beyond the Scale” campaign the scale is still the main measurement they have. So I am using WW and my nutritionist together to learn to eat well and be healthy. And I’m focusing on my successes not related to the scale. Unfortunately this is a lifelong battle for some of us, but I’m not giving up, even if I never get skinny, if I’m eating right most of the time I’ll be healthier than if I just gave up and didn’t even try.

    1. Loads of love to you Andrea, it’s such a personal thing and it sounds like you are really finding your way and tailoring things, which is awesome coz nobody knows what’s best for you better than you 🙂

  4. I work in a weight control clinic, and have a PhD in obesity.
    What all of these programs neglect is the physiology of energy balance and weight loss/regain.
    There are many biological mechanisms slowing weight loss and fuelling regain. If I mentioned the words GLP-1 or Ghrelin to a WW leader they would look at me blankly.
    The conventional WW wisdom has not been borne out in studies.
    If you want to talk more about this, am happy to.

    1. I am so down with the biologicial stuff. If only they would consider that and the equally important psychological impact.

  5. Shauna I think you nailed it.

    My sister and I went to our first WW meeting in 1997…prior to any points program…or like you said in your book “POINTS” like it has to be yelled!!! We have ran back to WW multiple times…an ever rotating wheel. First time was “Fat and Fiber” program and I added calorie count to it and lost close to 60lbs.

    I can tell you this. The prior program, before the new “Flex”, I was famished on it.  I decided to count the calories at the same time, to discover I was only intaking 1000-1100 calories a day. For me that is not sustainable.

    I lost almost 100 pounds after each baby (I am done with two) and most of the weight I lost without WW.

    I did, however, give them one last try this new program and I am finally hanging up my hat and Sunday starts the required Calories in Calories Out (CICO) that I can do for the rest of my life. I tend to lose more by watching my portions and calories so Ill stick to the basics that I always come back to and this is my final goodbye to the two W’s.

  6. Shauna……..everything you said resonates with me. Being on Weight Watchers becomes a stressful, full-time job- a 24/7 job with no time off- and as a teenager, walking around with a head full of guilt, appraising every morsel, consumed with the endless math of it all!

    Like you, I found ways around the rules (cheat meal after weigh-in because it’s the farthest away from the next weigh-in, etc.) And each week the scale looms- either your harshest critic or your best friend depending on results. It was a lot of pressure at a time when you’re much better off looking outward, rather than being consumed with attaining the unattainable.(No diet was going to make me a supermodel, and it turns out I didn’t need to be one to have a really, really good life. Who knew?)

    One positive thing I did learn at Weight Watchers over the years is portion control. That knowledge sticks with me and is very useful.

    I read your book and loved it. I also enjoy the blog. Thanks for sharing!.

    1. “as a teenager, walking around with a head full of guilt, appraising every morsel, consumed with the endless math of it all!” – oh my goodness yes.

      thank you so much for reading Lisa, i so appreciate it!

  7. THIS x 100. THISTHISTHISTHIS.

    And ohsoespecially this: “How to eat less without anyone noticing. How to eat more without anyone noticing.”

    (And how to avoid social events and opportunities, something I still struggle not to do, 35 years later.)

  8. I am so happy that you’ve put this out into the world, Shauna. Too many people keep going back (to WW or the latest weight loss fad of the day) and then blaming themselves when they either don’t lose any weight or end up gaining it back with a few friends for good measure, but data science shows us that ~95% of people will fail at intentional attempts to lose weight, so why do we blame ourselves? How is it that a 5% effective product supports a multi-million dollar (per year) industry?

    Can’t wait to have a coffee and chatter when we meet up in October!!!

    1. “How is it that a 5% effective product supports a multi-million dollar (per year) industry?” – YES YES YES!

      Can’t wait to see youuuu! I will direct you to the good coffee!

  9. Massive big hug *smooch*

    I worry for the kids. 🙁 No kid should have to go through this shit! It makes me sad you had to but … recently you’ve been staring some mighty big demons in the face. Much kudos!

    It’s bizar how much of the behaviour you’ve described over the years I recognise, have acted out as a child and still do every now and then (making me feel really silly). For some reason it doesn’t take over. I mostly have a healthy relationship with food. Makes me wonder why.
    I do think had I been sent to WW or put on a diet at an early age it would not have been a good thing :/ I was a chubby kid but I grew out of it as a teenager. Shining a big light on some of the silly things I did as a kid would have maybe given them to much weight, to much meaning? Shame is such a harmful emotion. I remember my mom laughing and rolling her eyes when I nicked or hoarded food. That did make me feel like an idiot but I wasn’t crippled by shame. I can’t imagine having to go through a public weigh in as a kid. That would have been horrible and I think very damaging. Shaming is never a good thing.

  10. This post moved me to tears. I don’t know how you get into my head so easily, but you do. You are an amazing writer, and I have followed your blog for several years.
    I was first put on diet pills when I was in the 3rd grade – EIGHT YEARS OLD! And, like several others who have commented, I am 66 and STILL battling. Some times I succeed, for a while, and then I eat as though there will be no food ever again. And hate myself over and over, and wonder WHY can’t I just treat food as something that nourishes my body, instead of something that I must battle with constantly.

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