Losing weight: What works, what doesn't


It’s becoming clear why Weight Watchers dominates the marketplace. I’ve been on the program for three weeks and I’m within one pound of reaching my first goal.

Weight Watchers sets the initial target at 5 percent of body weight. I log in each day and get my reinforcement by achieving numbers that make me feel good. (Most men don’t attend meetings, the unmanly option.)

Weight Watchers allows me to eat anything and trade points. I haven’t felt hungry at any time and that’s one of the promotional pitches.

In 2011, the program hit a sales level close to $2 billion. Some 12,000 leaders conducted more than 45,000 weekly meetings.

What can be wrong with that? A skeptic would ask how long the effect lasts and whether the adherents will live longer and healthier lives.

That’s a story that takes a lot of explaining.

Spoiler alert: I’ll be reviewing a critically important article published this year. It shows that overweight people live longer than what doctors and the industry call normal-weight ones. It challenges our definitions and how they came about. For most of us that idea is harder to digest than a 70-ounce steak. It goes against most of what’s been taught for a long time.

For now, let’s focus on losing weight. What works and what doesn’t?

That knowledge may help with your next job interview. The public cares about the way we look. Nearly everyone judges willpower by the bulge above your belt.

Weight Watchers sets achievable goals. Despite a general misconception, low initial targets don’t predict long-term success, but starting slow is OK with me and it’s basic to the program.

Weight Watchers will also get you hooked with testimonials by attractive ladies. They look so pleased with success and it makes us feel good to see them.

The chance that the present poster lady will still be in the normal range 10 years from now approaches zero. I’m only assessing the statistics, not the person.

For short term, less than five to 10 years, I harbor some positive thoughts about weight loss aspirations. I use the word “thoughts,” in the way your doctor says, “In my opinion.” It’s full of wiggle room, not like the lawyer who announces, “Without any doubt, Pricilla did put arsenic in the sugar, but she did it as an act of love and compassion.”

New data contains conflicting information about weight control. Here is my interpretation:

As Custer might have said, “First the good news, boys.”

  1. Diets work, even though Weight Watchers and others reject the term, diet.

They offer me a way to restrict energy (food) intake and promote utilization (exercise). I call that a diet.

They tell me to get off my backside and hit the road or the gym. I call that common sense supported by science.

The well-known diets produce similar results. Be careful about trying just anything. I’d avoid those that start, “Eat only ....” There are deadly diets that claim to conform to one philosophy or another.

  1. Time-honored behavioral modification techniques can help us restrict portions and increase our activity level.

Like Skinner’s rats, I can be trained to ask for one scoop, not two. My bathroom scale helps, too. Initial weight loss boosts my confidence. When I hit a plateau, the Weight Watcher computer program holds my needy hand and says that it’s OK. It’s normal, hang in there.

  1. Our brains can be rewired. That’s critical.

I’ve written previously about ways to improve the future of our children and to decrease social violence. A mother’s touch is more than a feel-good behavior. It’s a societal need. I won’t repeat my arguments about gang-think or the role of rewiring brains.

Older minds are less easily reworked than young ones, but it’s possible to make some changes in the oldest of us. We might even be trained to smell and touch Mrs. See’s wonderful chocolates and have your brain respond that it might contain horsemeat.

  1. There are predictors of longer term success. I mentioned those before, but serious exercise, monitoring portions, eating mainly at home and cutting down on time in front of a monitor are some of the factors to consider.

  2. Although medicines have failed, so far, there’s plenty of money being spent to find an effective one.

There are also products that should be avoided. I was asked today about Dr. Oz and green coffee beans. The claim of being pure and natural fall short of my sense of rationality. It is not a pure form of the active ingredient. It’s an extract and extraction is a chemical process, Doc.

Natural? That’s the berry you can pick off the tree in Hawaii. It’s not a capsule you buy online.

I consider the product to be bit of quackery. Like the sound of a duck, the term means excessive boasting. I can’t justify my position here, but I’d be happy to engage in a discussion on my blog (larrymulkerin.com cancer calliope).

  1. For the very obese, not just overweight, surgery can be lifesaving.

I’ll devote the next article to body chemistry. We live with devilish feedback loops that war with our commitment to succeed. A recent review of dietary myths was published in The New England Journal of Medicine. It may be worth a whole column.

Before I move on to the role of diet and weight on health and longevity, I may take a break to discuss marijuana. I prescribed weed at one time. It was legal. I treated cancer patients on a protocol.

Dr. Larry Mulkerin is a retired clinical professor. He can be reached at mulkerin@charter.net.


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