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Weighing In On The New Oprah-Weight Watchers Venture

Weight Watchers announced Oct. 19 that Oprah Winfrey is taking an approximately 10 percent stake in the weight management company for about $43.2 million and joining its board. Here, Winfrey is seen in an Oct. 14 file photo. (Greg Allen/Invision/AP)

Weight Watchers announced Oct. 19 that Oprah Winfrey is taking an approximately 10 percent stake in the weight management company for about $43.2 million and joining its board. Here, Winfrey is seen in an Oct. 14 file photo. (Greg Allen/Invision/AP)

By Jean Fain

When I learned that Oprah Winfrey would be the new face of Weight Watchers as well as a major investor in the international diet company, I panicked. Would this endorsement by a beloved celebrity lure even more desperate dieters into counting calories, weighing foods and getting sucked into the group’s particular brand of tough love?

Let me back up for a moment: If the partnership between the faltering diet company and former talk show host is news to you, Oprah recently invested $43.2 million in Weight Watchers International, Inc., to help dieters everywhere lose weight and gain health and happiness.

She initially bought 6.4 million shares, or 10 percent, of Weight Watchers, and has the option to buy another 3.5 million. Her investment immediately started paying off: The stock doubled on day one, earning the most recognizable black billionaire $70 million, at least on paper. What’s more, since Aug. 12, Oprah has lost 15 pounds.

So, is a Weight Watchers’ membership a wise investment? I’ve already written about what I feel are the organizations’ downsides in an earlier post. At best, Weight Watchers provides a short-term fix and conditional support for long-standing eating issues. At worst, the food plan can exacerbate the very problems members are hoping to resolve.

Unless you’ve been on a media diet, you already know that Oprah has a long history of gaining and losing weight. Over the last 25 years, the yo-yo dieter, who has written of her ongoing “food addiction,” has tried everything from liquid diets and rigorous exercise to a personal chef and a more spiritual path, but she’s yet to settle on any one successful, sustainable approach.

To help you make a wise investment, I solicited a half dozen expert opinions via email and asked what they think of Oprah’s slimming plan and her open invitation to “come join me” at Weight Watchers. More specifically, I posed two questions:

1) What’s your reaction to the announcement that Oprah is not only the new face of Weight Watchers, she’s a major investor in the diet company?

2) Oprah is asking everyone to join her in counting Weight Watchers’ points. Will you join her? Why or why not?

To be fair, I also asked Oprah and friends for their thoughts. Neither Gayle King, Oprah’s close pal, nor Oprah’s publicist got back to me. All I got from Stedman Graham, Oprah’s boyfriend, was an automated response. If there were a surprise, it’s how hard it was to find a single expert who’s excited about this fledgling partnership.

What follows are highlights from those recent email interviews:

— Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, author of “Soda Politics”:

“It’s a classic conflict of interest — she’s flacking a company in which she invests. The more she flacks, the more people join, and the more money she will make. There are worse things to flack. Weight Watchers is actually demonstrated to be a reasonable diet plan. It works for some people.

“I’m of the persuasion that weight can be managed by eating less. I’m trained in nutrition and don’t need to count points.”

 Traci Mann, diet researcher, author of “Secrets from the Eating Lab” and advocate of strategic eating:

“Oprah has made an outstanding investment. As long as people give diet companies the credit when they lose weight, but not the blame when they regain it, there will always be business for companies like Weight Watchers. As much as I love Oprah, I see no reason to join in with that near-futile mission. Weight Watchers leads to short-term weight loss, but in the long term, the majority of individuals regain what they lost.” Continue reading

The Checkup: How To Feed Your Muffin Top, And Other Weight Loss Wisdom

If you’ve ever hated your weight or wished to trade in a specific body part, or yearned to step off the debilitating dieting roller-coaster, you are so not alone. Indeed, you are us.

So here, we vent about our personal challenges — how to finally lose that last 10 pounds, escaping from our self-imposed food prisons — and explore some new strategies for relief. It’s all in the latest installment of our podcast, The Checkup, a joint venture between WBUR and Slate. We call this episode “Muffin Top,” Download it here before your next meal.

•First, we explore Motivational Interviewing, an increasingly popular technique that can spur you toward making changes in your eating and other behaviors. Included: A new book with the subtitle: “How the Power of Motivational Interviewing Can Reveal What You Want and Help You Get There.”

•We ask an eating disorders expert about why diets don’t work and whether we’ve entered a post-Weight Watchers era.

•And we also also get intimate about the psychic costs of actually achieving your goal weight and trying, desperately, to maintain it.

In case you missed other recent episodes: “Teenage Zombies,” explored the curious minds of adolescents, with segments on sleep, porn and impulsive choices; “Power to the Patient” looked at ways we can all feel in more control of our health care; “High Anxiety” included reports on hormones, parenting and fear of flying; and “Sexual Reality Checks” examined penis size, female desire and aging.

Better yet, don’t miss a single episode and just subscribe now.

Each week, The Checkup features a different topic — previous episodes focused on college mental health, sex problems, the Insanity workout and vaccine issues.

If you listen and like it, won’t you please let our podcasting partner, Slate, know? You can email them at podcasts@slate.com.

From The Eating Lab: Diets Don’t Work, But Why?

By Jean Fain
Guest Contributor

As soon as Traci Mann’s new book, “Secrets From The Eating Lab,” hit bookstores shelves, I ordered my copy. Not only because the University of Minnesota psychology professor is one of the leading researchers on the psychology of eating, dieting and self-control, but her 2007 Medicare study on effective obesity treatments was the irrefutable evidence I needed in writing about how diets don’t work — at least not as dieters expect — in my own book on eating with self-compassion.

Diets fail to facilitate significant or sustainable weight loss, Mann argues. What’s more, diets are unnecessary for optimal health.

Diets don’t work for a variety of reasons, from biology to psychology. After two decades of studying the scientific literature as well as her own diet subjects, Mann points the finger, first and foremost, at human biology. “Genes,” she argues, “play an indisputable role in regulating an individual’s weight: most of us have a genetically set weight range. When we try to live above or below that range, our body struggles mightily to adapt.”

Second to biology, Mann blames a combination of neuroscience and psychology. Our brains are hardwired to want food for survival, she explains, so restricting calories creates a psychological stress response, which facilitates weight gain, not loss. Also, she adds: “Studies show that willpower, the thing we all blame ourselves for not having enough of, is in many ways a mythical quality and certainly not something that can be relied upon for weight loss.”

Whether you’re interested in boosting your health or losing weight, Mann’s best advice is to ditch the diet and adopt her 12 “Smart Regulation Strategies,” her proven mental strategies for reaching your “leanest, livable weight.” Instead of counting calories, for example, she advocates penalizing yourself for succumbing to temptation as well as thinking about tempting foods in the abstract. So instead of thinking about the specific qualities of a glazed donut with chocolate icing, think of a donut as a generic dessert or just one of many breakfast foods.

Mann’s views come as no surprise to me, a therapist who specializes in eating disorders. The big surprise for me in her new book is that I only loved the first half — the half that pinpoints the problem with dieting. The other half, which focuses on her “no-diet” plan, well, I liked it only half as much. Turns out, a good bit of Mann’s plan calls for external changes, like using smaller plates and taking smaller portions, a la Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating. Mann prescribes internal changes, too, but none are what I’d describe as truly mindful.

I was tempted to dismiss Mann’s plan as a collection of mental tricks, then I thought better of it. Instead, I set up a mini-interview via email with the professor turned author and I’m glad I did. Not only did Mann have some interesting things to say about dieting — her own experience and that of determined dieters –- but her answers reminded me that there’s no right way to address eating problems. In fact, there are many ways to go. To see if Mann’s way of reaching your leanest livable weight is a way you might want to go, read on.

JF: You’re pretty unusual in that you ditched dieting after just one diet. And yet, you’ve devoted your career to proving diets don’t work. Why is that?

TM: I ditched dieting because the diet I went on made me miserable, and I watched both of my parents cycle through diets and re-gain, diets and re-gain, ad nauseam. Continue reading

Embrace The Eggnog, And Other Tips To Curb Holiday Eating (And Guilt)

(Theen Moy/Flickr)

(Theen Moy/Flickr)

It’s peak season for overeating — and then beating yourself up for doing it.

Clearly, you’re not the only one treating yourself to pumpkin and pecan pie, egg nog and, yes, fruitcake. Yet it’s no comfort that everyone else and their Weight Watchers’ leader is also riddled with guilt and enduring a personal thrashing for the extra calories and potential weight gain. While this self-flagellation goes on, you’re missing out on enjoying the holidays.

If only there were a better approach to holiday eating, maybe then you’d be able to stop beating yourself up, enjoy eating what you love and savor everything else you really do love about this season.

Happily, you don’t need an emergency gastric bypass to stop the vicious cycle: putting an end to both overeating and self-criticism might be easier than you think. It might be as easy as reviewing some research-based strategies honed from a group training I lead for people with eating issues. It revolves around practicing a variety of mindful eating and self-compassion meditations.

Here are five proven tips for happier, healthier holiday eating:

1. Redefine Holiday Eating

You’ll need a better working definition of “normal holiday eating” if your definition sounds anything like my esteemed colleague and family eating expert Ellyn Satter’s:

Most people get caught up in what they should and shouldn’t eat. They’re anxious and ambivalent about eating. They might try to resist at holiday parties, but the table is laden with ‘forbidden food,’ and they throw away all control and overdo it. Many times they’re over-hungry because they’re trying to restrict themselves and lose weight. So the standard definition of holiday eating becomes eating way too much.

If you’d prefer to take fewer bites and ease the anxiety and ambivalence, now’s the time to do the exact the opposite, starting with eating regular meals and snacks. Then, come party-time, permit yourself to eat the foods you enjoy. You’re probably going to eat them anyway, so you might as well as enjoy them, without the guilt and other uncomfortable emotions that predictably fuel emotional eating.

2. Go Easier On Yourself

If, like most dieters, you’re hoping that feeding yourself a steady diet of self-criticism will inspire you to rein in your eating, think again. You’ve actually got it backward. Self-criticism — calling yourself fat, disgusting and other mean, nasty names — is really a recipe for emotional overeating and holiday weight gain. Continue reading