This year, Americans will spend more than $60 billion dollars on weight loss programs and products. Millions will flock to counseling centers or seek advice over the phone and the Internet to shed the extra pounds they added on during the holiday season. Millions will order from diet menus to be delivered conveniently to their homes and work places. Diet companies are more than ready to match the demand.
The three industry leaders, Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem and Jenny Craig, have undergone a number of makeovers themselves in time for their high season. For instance, Weight Watchers has announced a new program called “Points Plus,” which is said to represent one of the company’s biggest changes in over a decade. Nutrisystem has re-designed and expanded its selection of diet foods and now includes “fresh-frozen” items in addition to its traditional packaged meals. Jenny Craig allows its clients to closely monitor their weight loss progress “in real time” with the help of a new online tracking system.
David Kirchhoff, President and C.E.O. of Weight Watchers International, calls the new point system “a better set of tools for weight loss and lifestyle changes in the world of today.” He goes on to say that the company has become more aware of the obstacles to developing healthier eating habits and achieving sustainable weight loss in an environment that is not always conducive to these goals. While calorie reduction is still an important factor for successful weight management, calorie-counting alone may not do the trick. The nutritional quality of the food matters as much, if not more. For example, the dietary benefits of 250 calories from fresh fruit are far greater than those of the same amount of, let’s say, chocolate-chip cookies. Relying exclusively on calories as a measure for weight loss is obviously not sufficient. Consequently, the new system does no longer attach points to items like fresh fruit, although, you’re still advised to watch your portion sizes.
At Nutrisystem, your meal choices are made for you as part of a 28-day diet plan. You can go with a pre-selected “Favorites Package” or customize your menus yourself from a long list of breakfast-, lunch-, dinner- and snack items. Home delivery makes it all the more convenient. All you have to do is follow the “no brainer meal plan,” as the company advertises its programs.
There’s no counting of calories or points involved at Nutrisystem. The meals are intentionally mainstream. Pastries, pizza, pasta, burgers, even ice cream and cookies are allowed. As part of the plan, you are encouraged to take gradually more responsibility for your food choices by adding additional groceries to the items you receive from the program. The obvious goal is to eventually wean yourself from the plan altogether and continue eating right when you’re back on your own.
Jenny Craig, who also has a food delivery system, called Jenny Cuisine®, emphasizes the importance of ongoing coaching and support for its clients. Once a week you can speak to a consultant in person or over the phone and get a boost for your moral.
All these programs have undoubtedly great advantages. They offer guidance and handholding at a time when people are extremely vulnerable. They can also create an environment where making healthier food choices is less cumbersome and better eating habits are more easily maintained. Convenience is an added but important bonus.
But there are considerable downsides as well. Following a weight loss program, especially when you receive prepared meals as part of your diet plan, will not necessarily help you develop a healthy relationship to food. You may learn how to eat lighter and limit your portion sizes, but you don’t really acquire food shopping- or cooking skills for yourself. In fact, you’re going to get used to the convenience and may be even less inclined to undergo the effort of making meals from scratch.
Healthy eating is expensive. The phrase “you must be wealthy to be healthy” describes a sad fact. Many overweight people eat bad food mostly because it’s affordable. You may say that those who can afford commercial weight loss programs to begin with must have enough money for quality food too. But while diets have limited timetables, healthy eating habits are supposed to continue indefinitely. While weight loss regimens are meant to function as interventions, a health-promoting lifestyle ought to be a lifetime commitment.
When weight loss programs are completed, the real world is still out there, awaiting the newly converted with countless temptations. Emotional needs may still exist. When feelings of stress, anxiety or boredom return, how will the best of intentions hold up?
Eating disorders are often only a symptom of a person’s dysfunctional behavior or situation. Food addictions are not always about food. The characteristics can be similar to alcohol- and drug abuse. But while someone may manage to stay away from liquor stores and drug dealers after rehab, no one can stop buying groceries after weight loss. That is why keeping the weight off over time is a real challenge.
If professional counseling is limited to dietary issues, other underlying problems may remain unresolved. Addressing these, however, is typically beyond the scope of diet programs.
In my own practice as a dietitian and health counselor, I make it very clear to my clients that there are no short cuts available to them. Nothing less than a complete personal transformation is required, an unwavering commitment to their health and well-being for the rest of their lives. If they are ready for that, they can pick a diet, any diet…
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.”