It's always around this time of the year when millions of people like me make a resolution to lose weight, a resolution that usually fizzles out around Martin Luther King day. And some of you reading this have already started Googling around for weight loss programs like Nutrisystem or Weight Watchers, figuring that any problem is easier to solve if you throw some money at it. But, also like me, you probably have very low tolerance for bullshit.
So one thing you'll find out is that, for instance, Weight Watchers has a failure rate of 97 percent over the long term. After five years, only three percent can say they had reached their goal weight and kept it off.
Those stats aren't a discouragement to stubborn types like me -- they're a challenge. I suspect that around 50 percent of the population thinks they're in the smartest, cleverest three percent of the species, and they're totally going to be the ones to beat the system.
So, a while back I signed up for Weight Watchers, even though it seems like the sort of thing cynical types like me should be making fun of instead of joining. Here's what I think you should know before taking the plunge ...
#5. Get Ready for Portion Shock
If you didn't realize it already, you should know that society really, really wants you to be fat. You just have to recognize that right away.
The worst thing Hollywood has ever done to fat people is portray the obese as constantly eating at every single moment. When Friends would flash back to Monica's fat days, the big joke was she always had a huge, sloppy sandwich or chicken leg in her hand. The crime here isn't that it makes fat people look like mindless gluttons, but that it sends the message that you only get fat if you eat huge comedy prop food, all day, every day.
What you find out from a program like Weight Watchers (where you are kept on a strict daily point system) is that you can get sitcom-joke fat purely by eating three meals a day of the kind of portions portrayed as normal in TV commercials and on restaurant menus.
On my first day keeping myself to the Weight Watchers system, I ate the same lunch I normally do, calculated my points, and realized I was basically done for the day. I'm not exaggerating. Under their program, the average person would get a limit of 25 or so "points" a day. A Wendy's cheeseburger is 11 points, a medium order of fries is 9. Throw in a Coke and you're done eating (and over your limit if you ate so much as a plain bagel for breakfast).
So what most Americans think of as a normal day's worth of food -- based on how we have seen people eat in movies and TV our whole lives -- is actually apparently a huge gross feeding frenzy for fatty fats.
I tried plugging this into my Weight Watchers calculator. I think it broke it.
Likewise, having eaten Chinese my whole life, I'd come to think of rice as a "filler," and that you were being good if you mixed more rice in with your stir-fry, as it was basically "free" and would fill you up without you eating too much of the "real food."
Mom would not approve of this ratio.
While it's certainly easier on your wallet, which I guess is basically what's important in Chinese culture, apparently it has calories. A lot of calories. Healthy things like juice or fruits have calories too. I still got to eat them, but that means less room for delicious chips.
And if you want a burger, the rest of the plate has to look like that.
You can't fight the math -- the calories I had been eating were getting stored instead of burned. But the kind of portions that will let me lose weight at a slow and healthy rate are so small that people always have to comment on it, and get that "anorexia concern" look on their face. Like me, they've been trained to think of way too much food as the norm.
The moment you start dieting, you're immediately at war with the entire food industry. Eating out becomes a hassle. Everything is super-sized now, and if you ask if they can make it smaller for you, they either stare at you like you don't speak English or they roll their eyes like you are one of those people trying to pay for your order in pennies. I can't stand that, so half my sandwich goes into my boyfriend after he's eaten his meal, and now he's getting fat. Somehow I don't think this is how it's supposed to work.
#4. It's Kind of a Game -- One You'll Try to Cheat
As I mentioned, the core of Weight Watchers is its patented points system. And I do mean patented, since they will sue the pants off you if you try to publish the formula publicly.
These women tried to post the points formula online.
It's just a formula that takes into account some basic nutritional stats of any food and combines them into a single-digit "points" number. So a sandwich is six points or a pizza slice is eight points, and you have a max that you can eat each day. If you keep under the max, you lose weight. It's simple, and appeals to people who are bad at math. (Quick, what's 386 calories + 151 calories? How about eight points + three points?) Even as an Asian, I found myself doing the Weight Watchers calculations slightly faster.
The problem is that it's a system other people made, and when human nature -- or at least, my human nature -- runs into other people's rules, we instinctively try to game the system. "Who are you to tell me what to do?"
For instance, my pregnant cousin recently went in for a gestational diabetes test and asked the doctor what she could do to make sure she "passed" the test -- eat candy, or fast, or exercise right beforehand -- and the doctor just stared at her and patiently explained that it wasn't in her best interest to try to fake out the test because the prize for dodging treatment would be a C-section or a baby born with diabetes, or something great like that.
"Congratulations! We're going to cut a hole in you!"
The Weight Watchers system is also easy to "game" if you forget the big picture. It only takes a few nutritional stats into account (calories, fat, fiber), so you can drink Diet Coke for fewer points than a glass of milk or orange juice, up until the day you get scurvy. It doesn't tell you when to eat or how often, so in any given day, you could eat either three balanced meals or one big chocolate cake for breakfast and nothing else. Same points.
Other programs get around this by requiring you to eat only their food, but that just brings us to ...
#3. Beware of Buying Their Food
The main way a program like Weight Watchers makes money is by membership fees that let you go to meetings and talk to other dieters and have staff guide you through the program week to week. But their other source of income is they sell you special food branded with their logo. In Weight Watchers the food itself is sort of designed to game the system -- they know the formula, so they can aim for the exact amount of calories, fat, fiber and protein to keep it just under the threshold for two points or whatever.
One-point mint brownie!
So they're in the best position to design the maximum amount of snack for any set amount of points, and the points are right on the box so you don't even have to run any numbers through their calculator or look anything up, which is awesome if you're very lazy. The cost for this remarkable service is twofold: 1) actual money, as the food is fairly expensive, and 2) you have to go to meetings, since most of the food is only sold there.
The thing is, though, with the points system you can at least go out and find other alternative snacks at the supermarket with the same point values. With their food you're basically just paying them to do the math for you, they have no patent on zero-calorie fried chicken. On the opposite end of that spectrum is Nutrisystem, where you lose weight by eating their terrible meals every morning, noon and night for the rest of your life. Same with Jenny Craig, where you lose weight by eating their terrible and even more expensive meals for the rest of your life.
That link up there mentions a lady who spent $9,000 on losing weight she just kept gaining back. Because they don't teach you to evaluate foods outside the system, once you stop buying their food you have no idea what to eat, and you just get fat again.