Weight Watchers: Why the diet I hated as a teenager became the lifestyle I love as an adult

When I hit my 40's, I found myself joining Weight Watchers — the place my 16-year self said I'd never, ever go again.
Image: Yogurt
Zero point foods you can eat "for free," like Greek yogurt and fruit, make it easy to focus on eating more whole foods rather than restriction.Karisssa / Getty Images/iStockphoto
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By Ronnie Koenig

The first time I joined Weight Watchers, I was 16 years old. I attended a meeting in a dusty church basement with my friend and her mom. I remember my cheeks burning with shame, seeing my “number” written in pencil on a card. “You have far to go, like me,” my friend’s mom commented, reading my weight over my shoulder.

Like so many women, my childhood chubbiness turned me into a woman with a fixation on dieting. I tried everything to lose weight, including Slim Fast. It wasn’t until I was in my 30’s that I found a reasonable way of eating and exercising that not only brought me to a healthy weight and a normal BMI range, but best of all, a happy and healthy mindset about my food choices and figure. At that time, I swore off diet plans for good.

Then, in the year leading up to my 40th birthday I set a goal for myself: to start my fourth decade in the best shape of my life. Working with an exercise coach and a nutritionist, I took my fitness to the next level, running sprints and staircases outdoors, giving up diet soda and using measuring cups and spoons to see what I was actually consuming. The result was that I attended my 40th birthday party looking and feeling hot! I was proud that I hadn’t done some short-term fad diet to get there.

But shortly after my birthday, without a trainer and a goal with an end date to hold me accountable, my weight crept up a couple pounds because wine, chocolate and well, life! Now, five years later, I’m starting to notice what I knew would happen once I hit my 40’s — it’s more difficult to maintain my weight. I wanted to feel better in my clothes and look great in my mom-kini at the pool, so I did something I never thought I would do: I signed up for Weight Watchers (since rebranded as WW) to take off the extra 10 pounds.

I know, I can feel my 16-year-old self cringing. But Sofia Rydin-Gray, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in weight loss and director of behavioral health at Duke Diet & Fitness Center, reminded me that there’s definitely an emotional aspect to weight loss and that it’s not uncommon to feel shamed not just by the number on the scale, but by the messages we’ve heard from other people. And my mental state as a content 40-something is surely in a much more stable place than that of a self-conscious teenager.

“For successful weight loss and maintenance, the psychological health of the person needs to be addressed,” she said. “We all know ‘eat less, move more.’ We can be counting calories and going to the gym but at some point, life happens — we have a bad day, or feel rejected in a relationship or just feel stressed out. We need to learn new coping skills for when this happens.”

Giving WW another shot — 30 years later

I was convinced that I would benefit from a program that would not only hold me accountable, but also give me the needed coping skills to help me stick to my goals when life gets in the way. So one month ago, I put aside those shameful memories and decided to give WW another shot.

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I was definitely reluctant about joining, but after I took the time to explore the new plan, I liked that it put a focus on eating whole foods. All fruits and vegetables and things like chicken breast and salmon and Greek yogurt (0%) were all zero points, meaning that you can eat as much as you want of them for “free” (within reason). I knew that I could do this program, not as a short-term diet, but as a long-term lifestyle.

My digital subscription gives me the ability to track my points easily on an app on my phone, and the barcode scanner makes it simple to find the points of any food. No awkward meetings in church basements for me! Even better, I loved having access to a WW coach, a feature I used when I was faced with three social engagements in one weekend, all rife with possibilities to eat and drink alcohol and then eat some more when my inhibitions were lowered. The WW coach, who I instant messaged through the app, helped me come up with a strategy for handling these events and my food choices, and I came out of that weekend without gaining an ounce.

“The people who actually succeed are usually the ones who get ongoing support from a dietitian or psychologist,” Rydin-Gray told me. She said that this support could also come from a program like WW. The point is that once you get past what she calls the “honeymoon phase” of a diet when everything is clicking and you’re losing weight, that you’ll know how to cope with inevitable setbacks.

“My patients learn to overcome some of the previous barriers that led to them being sedentary or using food to cope or putting themselves on the back burner,” Rydin-Gray says, adding that it’s crucial for those who want to be successful at losing and keeping the weight off to put their emotional well-being at the forefront of their journey.

“I help people recognize what led to falling off track — is it because you’re a people-pleaser or not planning meals because you’re feeling stressed out? Are you turning to food when you’re feeling lonely? If so, what are some different options? If you’re feeling lonely, it’s a need for connection instead of turning to food.”

The revelation: My self-worth isn't measured by a scale

I’m in a different place than that chubby teenaged girl in the church basement — I know the parts that I can take and which ones to leave.

I decided I wanted to achieve lifetime status. In order to do this, I had to attend meetings. I stopped into a WW meeting and was greeted by many of the familiar things from back in the day — people, mostly women, lined up to weigh in on scales, a wall of products including everything from nutritional bars to herb shears (!) and the “hello my name is” tag I dreaded wearing. Okay, so maybe I’m just not one of those people who wants to discuss her eating habits in a group setting, but after staying for the meeting, I was surprised to find that the leader was pretty inspiring — I could benefit from having such a cheerleader in my corner. I also realized I’m in a different place than that chubby teenaged girl in the church basement — I know the parts that I can take and which ones to leave. Thankfully, my whole sense of self-worth is not based on the number on that little weigh-in card.

Rydin-Gray also said something that really resonated with me: To succeed, I needed to give up what she calls “all or nothing thinking.”

“If you’re very strict and then you have a slip, you’re going to go down a path of ‘I’ve failed, this is not going to work. People who manage long-term realize it’s all part of life. No one is perfect.”

So far, I’ve lost three pounds, which means I'm on track to steadily make progress towards my 10-pound goal. I know from experience that the real work will be in maintaining the healthy lifestyle I’ve put into action over the past month and not letting those inevitable slip-ups turn into landslides. But I have renewed confidence that with the support and accountability, and the practicality of the diet, this is a lifestyle I can truly do for life.

I’ve got that mom-kini in my sights, and my fridge is stocked with 0% Chobani. That, with a little wiggle room for wine and chocolate, is setting me up for success.

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