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Sunday, February 28, 2016


Oprah’s Investment in Weight Watchers Was Smart Because the Program Doesn’t Work


Winfrey’s venture is, in fact, a brilliant investment, although not necessarily for the reason she thinks. It’s brilliant not because Weight Watchers works but because it doesn’t. It’s the perfect business model. People give Weight Watchers the credit when they lose weight. Then they regain the weight and blame themselves. This sets them up to join Weight Watchers all over again, and they do.

The problem is that dieting itself leads to a host of physiological changes that undermine long-term efforts to maintain the weight loss. Some of these changes probably evolved to keep us alive in times of famine. For example, if your body detects that not enough calories are coming in, your metabolism changes so that you can run your body on fewer calories than before, leading your body to store more as fat. So if you eat the same amount of calories that you were eating when you lost weight on your diet, after a while you will stop losing weight, and maybe even start gaining it. Dieters sometimes refer to this as “the plateau,” and it is a predictable result of calorie restriction. Few dieters make it past this plateau.
Dieting also leads to changes in the hormones of the gastrointestinal system, the so-called gut hormones. Some of those hormones (such as leptin and peptide YY) influence when you feel full, and others (including ghrelin) influence when you feel hungry. Levels of leptin and peptide YYdecrease after dieting, whereas levels of ghrelin increase. So food that made you feel full before you dieted will feel less satisfying as your diet goes on, and the extra hunger makes it that much harder to stick to your diet.

None of this is to suggest that no one successfully loses weight and keeps it off for several years. But based on surveys of those who do, conducted by Rena Wing at the Brown University’s Alpert Medical School, these folks are not casual dieters. Rather, they tend to make weight loss a singular focus of their life, weighing themselves and everything they eat every day. They tend to eat the same foods in the same amounts most days, and they exercise a ton: a minimum of an hour a day, seven days a week. As obesity expert Kelly Brownell, dean of Duke University’s School of Public Policy, told the New York Times, “They never don’t think about their weight.”
Traci Mann, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota and the author of Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again.

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