By Sheri Boggs

It's easy to overlook the old standards. All the Atkins, Zone and Caveman Diet people have entire sections and sometimes entire grocery stores devoted to their new "low-carb lifestyle." The macrobiotic, vegan/vegetarian, whole foods, juice fast, food-combining and yoga/Pilates people get the sexy mystique of somehow eating and exercising on a higher plane. But if you're doing Weight Watchers, or any other multimillion dollar corporation's method of losing weight, there's a tendency for both feeling like you're a goof for not being able to do it on your own, and for your hipper friends to giggle at your official black WW clutch, packed with booklets, points calculators, recipe cards and, yes, silver foil stars for having a "good" week.

Weight Watchers is a little hard to get used to if you're in any way cynical, anti-social, introverted or suspicious of anything that's too popular. But as someone who usually fits at least one of the above descriptors at any given time, I also have to admit that the program not only makes sense, it works. It's certainly one of the most flexible. The premise is simple: Each food has a points value based on its ratio of dietary fiber to calories and fat grams per serving. Members get a certain number of points every day, and one can increase his or her daily allotment with exercise. Unlike most current trendy diets, no foods or food groups are "forbidden." You can have whatever you want as long as the portions are sensible and you're willing to balance it out by eating lower-point foods and/or exercising.

Such a simple approach often makes for some remarkable successes. Lisa Leinberger of Spokane jettisoned 72 pounds in 11 months, and her accomplishment -- while astonishing -- is not all that uncommon in Weight Watchers.

"I started in June of 2002, followed the program, and 11 months later I had lost 72 pounds!" she says. "I liked that there really weren't any restrictions on what I could eat. Ice cream? Yes, I could have that. Chocolate? I had that, too. I could even drink a beer or two. As long as I stuck to my points and drank my water, the pounds came off. I could go about my day in the usual way and not stress about food, since I didn't look at it as a diet. More like a lifestyle."

The daily experience of being on Weight Watchers is designed to coax you into creating healthier habits. Every week, you go to a meeting, where you weigh in. (This is private, by the way -- you're in a little cubicle and your loss or gain is just recorded in your membership book, not broadcast to the entire group.) Then you pay your weekly fee, get new materials and sit in on a half-hour meeting. I'm not a big meeting person, but I really like my group's leader, Carolyn -- an older woman with regal bearing and a voice like Lauren Bacall's.

Typically meetings are part informational -- for instance, before Thanksgiving, we worked out the points value of what we'd be eating ahead of time -- and part motivational. If you really can't do meetings, there is an online version -- but even then it's kind of nice to get support from the message boards or find a friend to do it with you. The rest of the week, you just keep track of your points (and consumption of fruits, vegetables, water and dairy products) with this little checkbook register kind of thing called a Points Tracker.

While it is possible to do points in an unhealthy manner -- I've heard of people saving a lot of their daily Points for red wine or dumping extra fiber on cheesy, creamy, high-fat foods in an effort to lower their overall points -- your weekly tracker is designed with boxes to check off for glasses of water, fruits and vegetables and dairy products consumed. You don't have to turn in the Tracker, and I find that I eat much more healthfully on Weight Watchers -- lots more "real food," like whole-grain breads, vegetable-based soups, turkey breast, fruit and the occasional bit of pie.

Background -- Weight Watchers started in 1963 when a young housewife, aghast that her weight had crept up to 214 pounds, invited a handful of friends to her home in Queens for support and weight loss ideas. She didn't know it at the time, but Jean Nidetch had discovered the secret that would become a multimillion-dollar company. Two years later, she founded Weight Watchers. While the company's look has changed with the times -- I still remember my mom poring over her white Weight Watchers book with all the colored plastic index tabs in the 1970s -- the emphasis on weekly meetings remains the same. Weight Watchers is also committed to keeping up to date on all the latest dietary trends with the input of a credentialed scientific advisory committee. Recent booklets and meetings, in fact, have addressed the issue of high-protein, low-carb diets.

The company also fine-tunes itself every few years or so, introducing new variations of points (like the current Flexpoints system) and seasonal items like the post-holiday Fast Track Kit.

Getting Started -- Weight Watchers can be expensive; registration is usually around $20, and weekly fees are generally $11-$14. When you look at the fact that a loss of two pounds a week is average, it's daunting to realize that your 40-pound weight loss might end up costing more than $200. However, to mimic the reasoning of your average MasterCard commercial, isn't gaining a healthier lifestyle and a healthier body -- not to mention all the perks that come with that -- priceless?

To find the meeting nearest you, or just to get a sense for what Weight Watchers is like, visit the Web site at or call (800) 651-6000.

Publication date: 1/29/04

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