I probably shouldn’t be laughing about this, but I can’t help myself. When a group of Weight Watchers members in Sweden got together recently for their regular weigh-in, the floor collapsed. As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up. Here are some quotes from the online news story:
“We suddenly heard a huge thud; we almost thought it was an earthquake and everything flew up in the air,” one of about 20 group members said to the Smalandsposten newspaper. “The floor collapsed in one corner of the room and along the walls.”
After the initial collapse on Wednesday evening, the floor started to cave in other parts of the room, and the stench of sewage crept into the clinic, which is in Vaxjo, a city in south central Sweden. The group is looking for an alternate location for future meetings, Weight Watchers consultant Therese Levin told the Swedish paper.
Since they were able to break the floor badly enough to stir up some sewage, I’m guessing these people were 1) brand-new members of Weight Watchers or 2) long-time members of Weight Watchers.
I’ve known a handful of people who joined Weight Watchers at least once — all women, by the way. They all lost some weight. And they all gained it back, usually with a few extra pounds as a going-away present.
Given what Weight Watchers believes constitutes a good diet, I’m not surprised. Their entire program is based on the belief that the federal government’s nutrition guidelines are actually based on something resembling science. So Weight Watchers preaches the same guidelines: fat is bad, a bit of protein is okay, and carbohydrates are wonderful.
I never joined Weight Watchers, but before I knew better, I did try living on their low-fat Smart Ones meals (along with Lean Cuisines and other diet meals I could nuke.) By the end of the day, I’d be famished. Eventually I’d give up and then, like most dieters, blame myself for not having any discipline. Now I understand the problem wasn’t a lack of discipline; it was a lack of good nutrition.
To illustrate the problem, I went to the Weight Watchers site and put together a sample diet for one day. Since I’m a male, I allowed myself about 1700 calories. Figuring three meals and couple of side dishes, I chose a breakfast sandwich, angel hair pasta with marinara, chicken enchiladas, chicken on grilled flatbread, mac and cheese, and rice and beans. That’s a pretty fair sample of the kind of meals I chose back in the day. Here’s how they add up:
Total Calories: 1673
Fat: 37 grams
Protein: 77 grams
Carbs: 258 grams
As a percent of total calories, it works out to 20% fat, 18% protein, and 62% carbohydrates — just what the FDA prescribes. It’s also a prescription for hunger.
If you’re a regular reader or have seen Fat Head, you already know that fat is the most satiating macronutrient … in addition to being cricual for mood, hormone formation, vitamin absorption, etc. I won’t go into the many wonders of fat here, except to say that this diet contains far too little of it. That’s one reason I was so hungry.
The diet is also too low in protein. The FDA would approve, but not the people who actually know what they’re talking about, like Drs. Mike and Mary Dan Eades. According to their calculations, I need more like 120 grams of protein per day. Eating too little protein produces exactly the kind of physical effects dieters don’t want.
For one, it’ll make you hungry — never mind the calories. Research shows that primates eat until they satisfy their protein requirements. If the food is low in protein, they’ll eat more of it. Here are some quotes from an article on the subject:
Nutritional ecologist Professor David Raubenheimer’s just-published collaborative study with international colleagues found the Bolivian rainforest spider monkey regulates protein intake by eating greater quantities of low protein/high carbohydrate foods when protein-rich foods are not available.
“This is interesting because our experiments show that humans do the same,” says Professor Raubenheimer from the University’s Institute of Natural Sciences at Albany. The consequence is the current obesity epidemic.
Professor Raubenheimer has been involved in a range of similar studies on other primates, as well as human subjects in Australia, the Philippines and Jamaica, to observe how the protein content of their diets influences energy intake.
The findings, published in the latest issue of the journal Behavioural Ecology, reinforce the theory that humans and other primates are physiologically predisposed to maintain a constant level of protein in their diets. But when the range of foods available to them is low in protein (yet high in fats and carbohydrates) they are compelled to eat greater quantities in order to maintain correct protein levels.
Trust me, I definitely felt compelled to eat greater quantities. I just didn’t allow myself to, at least until I couldn’t stand it anymore.
The other problem with eating too little protein is muscle loss. I’ve heard some researchers claim people lose the same amount of weight on almost any diet if the calories are controlled — that hasn’t been my experience, but let’s suppose it’s true. So what? The point of dieting isn’t really to lose weight, it’s to lose fat. Digesting your own muscles is a lousy idea. In Protein Power, Drs. Eades & Eades wrote:
On typical low-calorie, high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets, protein intake is often marginal, and as a result as much as 50 percent of weight loss can be muscle weight. Each pound of active muscle mass lost reduces your rate of metabolism.
Now, a pound of muscle loss isn’t going to dramatically affect your metabolism, but I don’t think most people — especially men — go on a diet hoping to shed a few pounds off their biceps and pecs. Muscle makes a body look good, whether the body is male or female.
The biggest problem with the diet is, of course, the 62% carbohydrates. If you’re insulin resistant — and most fat people these days are — all those carbs are going to drive up your insulin and tell your body to store a disproportionate share of the 1673 calories as fat. Then you’ll starve at the cellular level and really feel hungry. Keep it up, and you’ll probably make your insulin resistance worse.
And as I learned from an excellent article by Dr. Doug McGuff, insulin resistance can also shrink your muscles. Dr. McGuff wondered why so many fat people have weak muscles — they are, after all, hauling a lot of weight around. That ought to make them stronger, but usually doesn’t. Here’s an edited version of what he figured out (the full article is worth the read):
The key to the paradox of the obese-yet weak client was insulin sensitivity. The modern Western diet is very high in refined carbohydrates when compared to the diet in our evolutionary past. In the face of very high carbohydrate intake, one’s glycogen stores will become completely full. Once the glycogen stores are completely full, glucose will begin to stack up in the blood stream. The evolutionary-based response is to increase insulin to drive more glycogen storage. However, pushing more glucose into a cell whose glycogen stores are full can be very damaging.
In the chronically overfed state, the body protects itself by decreasing the sensitivity of insulin receptors on the muscle cells and preserving (actually increasing) insulin sensitivity on the fat cells. By this mechanism blood sugar can be held in check without making the interior of the cells a syrupy mess, and energy is stored for future starvation (which never comes). The problem is, insulin not only controls glucose homeostasis, it is a major hormone for nutrient storage and all of the anabolic processes of the body. In the state we describe above, a vicious form of nutrient partitioning begins to occur. Nutrients used for growth and differentiation are shunted away from the muscle and the liver and are diverted to body fat. The muscles become smaller and weaker and the liver becomes infiltrated with fat as it desperately tries to produce VLDL.
Not a pretty picture, is it? I know, because by the time I was 14, I was a fat kid with skinny muscles. I finally started reshaping my body a bit when my older brother bought some barbells and more or less insisted we work out together. Our high-school health teacher also us to cut back on sugar, potatoes and bread if we wanted to lose weight, so I did. Then the low-fat diet craze hit, and I got stupid all over again.
Now I’m at least smart enough to know that Smart Ones aren’t going to help most people lose weight and keep it off, and neither will Weight Watchers. They claim a success rate of nearly 50%, based on a study they funded. But it’s interesting how they came up with that figure.
First off, the study only included people who were already lifetime members. To become a lifetime member, you have to reach your goal weight and stay there for six weeks. That means all the people who yelled “I’m starving!” and quit after a month or so were excluded … as were all the people who stuck it out but didn’t reach their goal weight.
After five years, most of the lifetime members included in the study had regained at least half of what they lost — but Weight Watchers defined “success” as weighing 5% less than when they first joined. So if you started at 200 pounds, reached your goal weight of 170, and went back up to 190, you were counted as successful. Wow. Sounds like “budget-cutting” in Washington.
A blogger analyzed the study, crunched his own numbers based on Weight Watchers’ enrollment figures, and calculated something closer to 6% of all members ever reaching their goal weight and staying there for six weeks … and when he crunched them again, counting only people who stayed at their goal weight for five years, he calculated a success rate of about two in a thousand.
I’d say the best thing Weight Watchers could do is reinforce their floors.