May 01, 2002 News & Features » Cover Story


Mass Appeal 

For some Richmonders, losing weight is more than a goal, it's a lifestyle.

There are happy sounds from those whose weight is down this week. One woman in a sleeveless orange dress actually jumps for joy, bounding off the scale and back into her shoes and sweater.

Others aren't so content with their results. A receptionist wearing a nametag that says "Peggy" and "I lost 65 pounds!" is studiously composed as she records a member's weight. "Did you expect to be up?" she asks the woman softly. The woman shrugs sheepishly. Peggy nods understandingly and doesn't press the point.

After weighing in, everyone takes a seat in the conference room next door. There are about 40 people here this morning, roughly half the usual number. The spring weather might account for some absences.

About a third of the crowd here is obese — defined clinically as being 30 percent or more above one's ideal body weight. They have 50, 75, 100 or even more pounds to lose. Another third is overweight, perhaps carrying an extra 25 to 35 pounds. The rest appear to be at a basically healthy weight. These are either lifetime members who have achieved their goal, or people with 5-10 well-hidden pounds to shed.

Weight Watchers leader Bobbi Caldwell, 43, bright-eyed and energetic in a floral skirt and a purple blouse, steps to the front of the room. She looks healthy and fit; not heavy. She has been this way for nearly 20 years. Before that — before joining Weight Watchers — she was close to 80 pounds overweight and had high blood pressure. She faces her audience with a smile and calls out above the din: "Good morning! Who had a good week?"One woman invented Weight Watchers, and in the process, invented the modern weight-loss industry.

Jean Nidetch may have been concerned about national health, or maybe she just wanted to get back into her jeans. But in the early 1960s, she started inviting friends over to talk about weight loss. The idea took off. By combining the group confessionals and addiction models of Alcoholics Anonymous with the country's growing obsession with weight loss, Nidetch had created a dieting empire that quickly spread around the world.

Nidetch's support-group model has kept Weight Watchers going strong ever since. Company figures show that nationally, 675,000 people attend more than 20,000 weekly meetings, with roughly 5,000 members attending in the greater Richmond area.

Meanwhile, America is just getting fatter. In 1999, obesity officially reached epidemic status. According to Centers for Disease Control director Jeffrey P. Koplan, "Overweight and physical inactivity account for more than 300,000 premature deaths each year in the United States, second only to tobacco-related deaths. Obesity is an epidemic and should be taken as seriously as any infectious disease epidemic."

Recently, in one of his final pronouncements as surgeon general, Dr. David Satcher warned that obesity-related illness and disease "threatens to wipe out progress fighting cancer and heart disease, and could even exceed cigarettes' harm."

Today, Nidetch seems prophetic. While Americans put on the pounds, we spend more money on weight loss than ever before. This year alone, 50 million of us will try to reduce, forking over $30 billion on diet programs and products. About 8 million Americans are on some sort of structured weight-loss program. And the odds aren't good even for those who succeed: Only about 5 percent of us will keep it off in the long haul.

Dr. Donald Kirby is one local doctor who knows firsthand how desperately good programs are needed. Kirby, an obesity specialist, leads the nutrition section at Virginia Commonwealth University's Medical College of Virginia Hospitals and Physicians of the VCU Health System. He calls obesity "the most significant health challenge of the new millennium."

Getting heavier requires a simple formula, really, Kirby says: "Increase the intake of high-calorie foods and decrease the activity. That's what we've done, as a nation. We've become supersized."

When Kirby does a new client interview, he typically hears some variation of the following: "I get up. I drive to fast food. I eat a sausage biscuit. I drive to work. I sit at the computer or the phone. I eat fast food for lunch. I go back to work and sit some more. When I get home I'm tired, so I make dinner, then put my feet up and watch TV, and have a snack."

Maybe it's extreme to trade a sunny Saturday morning for a motivational meeting on losing weight — one that begins, no less, with hoisting oneself onto a scale like a cut of meat. But ours is a culture that bombards us with messages to eat, and one in which we work, talk with friends, shop and play games without getting up off our bottoms. In that light, these meetings look more like self-defense.

As a chubby youngster sandwiched between two skinny brothers in a string of nine siblings, Caldwell was the butt of lots of "fat sister" jokes growing up, she says. She tried many approaches to weight loss: Ayds candies, the Dr. Atkins high-protein diet, grapefruit diets, a liquid diet called Slenda, even prescription diet pills. "I only took them for maybe two days," she recalls. "I'm hyper anyway. I nearly drove my mother crazy."

She married at 18, had three sons in four years and "got more and more and more and more overweight. … I'd had the kids and gained weight and just said, 'Forget it, I'm meant to be fat. I'm round, I'm motherly. Forget it.'"

Then a girlfriend called to say she was joining Weight Watchers and wanted Caldwell to go with her for support. "It really hurt my feelings," she says. But she never would have gone otherwise. Her friend quit within a month. Caldwell stayed. "I realized, 'I don't have to have a weight problem if I don't want to.' I saw that I could control it by controlling what I ate." She reached her goal weight and became a Weight Watchers leader in 1985.

Now Caldwell leads 25 meetings a week, in centers throughout the Richmond area. The company considers 11 meetings full-time and they entitles a leader to health benefits. Her 19 regular meetings require a two or two-and-a-half-hour commitment each; her six "At-Work" meetings require an hour. Leaders are paid on a commission basis: For each meeting, they receive 10 percent of member fees (which are typically $9.95 per week, per member) and 5 percent of product sales (company products include snack bars, cookbooks, reference guides, pedometers and kitchen items). With three boys in college and another headed there soon, Caldwell says her full schedule is partly financially motivated. "Make no mistake, I love what I do," she says. "But there will be a day when I don't do it anymore."

Hungarybrook Weight Watchers

8:35 a.m.

Hands go up in response to Caldwell.

"I lost 1.6 this week," says an attractive black woman in the back row. "That makes 10 pounds total."

"Good for you!" Caldwell enthuses, handing her a star sticker. "Are people starting to notice?"

"My daughter could see it, but my son couldn't," she says.

"Boys!" Caldwell empathizes. "Anyone else?"

A redhaired woman off to the side says she went clothes shopping this week and had to keep going back out for smaller sizes. That gets a burst of applause.

A brunette in the front of the room raises her hand, looking shapely in a bright blue T-shirt and white jeans. "I've lost 25.4 as of today," she says. Lots of applause.

Someone toward the middle of the room raises her hand. "I have a question about Papa John's pizza," she says, "the thin-slice vegetarian one — is it really two points a slice?"

"No. Uh-uh. Lies," Caldwell says about the pizza. "If it looks too good to be true, it's a typo." (One slice of Papa John's thin-crust vegetarian is actually five points.)

Now Caldwell approaches a dry-erase board to present today's theme. Pen in hand, she says, "I want you to think about what kind of eater you are."

Weight Watchers International Inc. is pushing 40. But the ongoing "battle of the bulge" keeps Weight Watchers young and, if you will, hungry. Over the years, the company has continually reinvented itself with new diet plans, and the points program, or "POINTS" in Weight Watcher-ese, is the latest.

It was developed in 1997 by a team of scientists and nutritionists. The approach is far simpler than previous Weight Watchers plans, which involved complicated formulas like "one peanut butter and jelly sandwich equals 2 breads, one protein, one fat and 1/2 fruit." The simplicity of the points program and, of course, its endorsement by the successfully slimmed-down Duchess of York, has given it mass appeal.

The company's overwrought explanation of the approach ("Weight Watchers POINTS Weight Loss System is based on the revolutionary proprietary and patented POINTS Food System") doesn't change the fact that it is an easy-to-use program. In a nutshell, every food has a point value based on its calorie, fiber and fat content, and every member is given a daily point range to aim for in order to achieve weight loss. Exercise earns members bonus points.

Furthermore, Weight Watchers has tracked its 1997 "lifetime members," those who reached their goal weight that year and maintained it by continuing with the program (free, as long as they stay within two pounds of their goal). Among these members, more than half maintained their goal weight for two years, and more than one-third are still there five years later. These figures are much more hopeful than the national average of only five percent who maintain weight loss.

The idea of group support is perhaps the strongest underpinning of the company. The weekly meeting is also the primary way the company makes money. All Weight Watchers leaders and receptionist/weighers have been members themselves, which ensures that they a) know the program and b) understand what it's like to have a weight problem.

Even most of the corporate office workers "came up through the meeting rooms," says Suzanne Anderson, public-relations manager for the eastern region of Weight Watchers. That includes the company's president and CEO, Linda Huett. "Pretty much everyone who works here is on the program," Anderson says. "It's the lifestyle here."

All staff members who deal directly with the public weigh in monthly to stay on top of any weight gain. "If it becomes a problem or becomes chronic, it's dealt with," Anderson says. That sounds ominous, but she swears it isn't. Rather, it's a practice-what-you-preach strategy. "We're geared to helping the world fight obesity," she says.

s Americans' waistlines expand, so does the line of "quick-fix" weight-loss products on the market.

"P.T. Barnum would be proud!" says MCV's Kirby. He's seen everything from the "Shape Patch," which promises weight loss by releasing an algae-derived ingredient "smoothly and slowly through the pores of the skin directly into the body," to the "amazing Chinese Magnetic Weight Loss Ring." "Start loosing (sic) weight now!" beckons the ring's Web page, just like "many famous Hollywood personalities." Apparently, you can even lose weight from different parts of your body by placing "the amazing slimming ring" on different fingers.

Tempting though it may be to become a "Shape Patch" distributor, Kirby opts for more legitimate medical approaches, teaching his patients to make healthier food choices and increase their physical activity. He sometimes advises medication and even surgery. Though not without risks, those options are helpful to some individuals. Still, he says, the key thing is calories: "It's ultimately that formula of [calorie] intake versus [energy] output."

Currently, he laments, comparatively little money goes to obesity research. It's more likely to go to HIV research, or various cancers, or understanding the genetic background of diabetes. "Those issues get an emotional response from people," he says. "People don't have the same sort of respect for obesity as a disease. Obesity is a chronic problem that needs to be dealt with worldwide, but especially nationally."

Hungarybrook Weight Watchers

8:45 a.m

"There are four choices here," says Caldwell, stepping back to reveal what she has written. "Bulk eater, sweet tooth, salty/crunchy or grazer." She goes through the options, and people raise their hands accordingly. "Oh, you're in the Ito family!" she says to those who choose salty/crunchy. "Cheetos, Fritos, Doritos, Tostitos .…"

A few women smile ironically and keep their hands up for all four choices. Caldwell says, "Ah, we have some members who graze on a bulk of sweet, salty, crunchy things."

The point of this exercise is to understand one's appetite and figure out how to satisfy it more healthfully. Though Caldwell offers some suggestions herself, she relies mainly on the members to help teach each other.

"What do you do for a sweet tooth?" she asks.

"Apple cinnamon soy chips," someone offers.

"Three points for the whole bag," Caldwell tells the room. "And you get some soy protein in there. What about salty/crunchy?"

"Pretzel sticks," comes a reply.

"Forty-five pretzel sticks — two points." Caldwell says. She leans toward the front row conspiratorially. "If you break 'em in half, you've got 90 pretzel sticks."

Soy chips, pretzel sticks and other "approved" snack foods (Pita Snax, Pita Puffs, Skinny Chips and Pirate's Booty, to name a few) fly daily off grocery store shelves and into Weight Watchers members' carts. It's the job of people like Ukrop's nutrition educator Julie Almond to keep those items stocked. "If Weight Watchers recommends it, you can guarantee we're going to get a surge of requests for it," Almond says.

Almond, who has a master's degree in nutrition and is a registered dietician, keeps Weight Watchers materials on-hand so she can help her customers make good food choices. She's impressed with the program. Standard nutrition guidelines can be difficult to use, she says. "They say 'Eat less than 30 percent of your calories from fat.' But how do you take that information and go out to eat on it? The challenge is to translate it. … You have to devise a system that is user-friendly, and Weight Watchers has done that."

Chris Smith agrees. Smith, 29, came into the world underweight and spent the next 29 years of his life making up for it. But since he and his wife, Karen, 31, joined Weight Watchers last August, he has shed 123 pounds and reached his goal. Karen has lost more than 70. (Though terribly unjust, it's not uncommon for men to lose weight faster than women. In their first week of the program, though they both say Karen worked harder at it, Chris lost 12 pounds to Karen's two. "I was furious!" Karen reports.)

Chris is tall and attractive, with strawberry-blonde hair and a youthful face, and it's not apparent that he has ever been overweight. Old photos of him around the couple's home look like someone else entirely — an older, much-heavier cousin, perhaps.

Although Karen has about 50 pounds left to lose, she revels in her current size, which allows her to buy clothing in the regular women's department instead of being bound to the plus-size section. "I don't ever remember being this small," she says. "I like who I am now. I don't want to go back to that person I used to be."

If the Smith kitchen is any indication, neither of them will return to plus sizes anytime soon. Their cupboards are stocked with low-calorie foods: Baked Lays potato chips, Crystal Light lemonade, canned veggies. The cereals on the top shelf have their point values scribbled right on the boxes. A huge box of Eclipse sugarless gum sits on the counter, two matching Weight Watchers food journals next to it. All of today's food choices seem to be neatly jotted down. "Those are tomorrow's," Karen corrects. Many people use the journal to track what they're eating throughout the day. Chris and Karen use it to make a plan and stick to it, even a day ahead of time. "Since it's written on this piece of paper, that's what I'm going to have," Karen explains.

Chris intends to keep up the journaling even once he's reached his goal. "I'm going to have to," he says. "Food is my alcohol. It's like any drug. … I might relax a bit, but I'll have to stick with it."

Emily Whitley, 39, has also become a shadow of her former self. "A year ago, I wouldn't have looked forward to turning 40," she says. She weighed close to 300 pounds and suffered from back pain and sciatica, especially after being on her feet during her shifts as a psychiatric nurse. Her sister encouraged her to join Weight Watchers last September. Her first goal was to lose 10 percent of her body weight, about 30 pounds. She hit that and kept going. Last month, she celebrated a 100-pound weight loss.

Her family has been very supportive, but she says her 10-year-old son didn't really understand her progress until she hit the 75-pound mark — his weight at the time. "I said, 'Greg, I've lost one of you now,' and he really got that," Whitley recalls. He also conducts "hug tests," in which he sees how much his hands overlap when he embraces his mom.

Some changes in Whitley's habits seem to have taken hold. She promised herself a Reese's peanut-butter cup at her first goal, that 10 percent loss. She has yet to indulge. "I certainly could now, I'm a hundred pounds down!" she says. But she just doesn't miss it as much as she thought she would. And for some people, it's a slippery slope from one Reese's cup to a 4-pound Whitman's sampler. So why even start?

Hungarybrook Weight Watchers

8:55 a.m.

Caldwell has a challenge for the group. "OK, your assignment, just for this week is … " she looks around the room, "chew." There are some giggles, and Caldwell smiles. "I mean it," she says. "Try really tasting your food."

Heads nod in understanding. "Now pass up your nametags," Caldwell says. There's a drawing for a free box of Weight Watchers snack bars (two points each), then everyone heads for the door and out into the sunshine.

Caldwell bids a final farewell after them: "I'll see less of you next week!" S


Latest in Cover Story


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Holly Timberline

Connect with Style Weekly

Most Popular Stories

Copyright © 2021 Style Weekly
Richmond's alternative for news, arts, culture and opinion
All rights reserved
Powered by Foundation