Jean Nidetch, the founder of Weight Watchers, died on April 29, at the age of 91. In 1962, after a lifetime of struggling with her weight, she picked up a copy of a diet from the New York City Board of Health and gave it a try. After losing 20 pounds, she invited a few friends over to tell them about it. After losing 72 pounds and meeting her goal, she officially opened Weight Watchers in May 1963.
When I was in my mid-20s, I decided to get serious about weight loss and exercise. I began a self-made exercise program of running and biking for miles each evening and ate a self-determined low-calorie diet. After losing ten pounds, I felt proud of myself and dreamed of a future where clothes fit and young men sought my company. Then the needle on the scale came to an abrupt halt.
Weeks went by as I cut more and more foods from my diet, trying to get that needle to budge. I was irate that my steadfast resolve was no longer showing results. Out of desperation, I called Weight Watchers. They encouraged me to attend a meeting, and though I was doubtful, I went. I was amazed to find out I didn’t have to starve to lose weight. I could eat bread, cheese and lots of other things, but in moderation. I spent the rest of the summer making myself beautiful meals and exclaiming to anyone who would listen, “Can you believe I’m on a diet, and I can eat all of this?” Weight Watchers taught me about maintaining a balanced diet and making wise food choices. I owe that to Jean Nidetch.
Look Around You
“If you want to lose weight, you will,” stated Nidetch very simply. How often do we say we want to lose weight but simultaneously do nothing about it? Or we look at someone enviously thinking, “I wish I looked like that.” It’s as if we expect some sort of a miracle to happen without any effort on our parts. But if you study the thinner people around you, you will see that they are doing things daily to manage their weight. If their muscles are toned, you know they exercise regularly. If their skin is clear and they have a healthy glow, they are probably drinking lots of water and getting well-balanced nutrition. It doesn’t happen magically. It takes work.
Nidetch learned similar things by studying the people around her and observing that thin people had different habits. In restaurants she saw that they put their forks down between bites, ate slowly, chewed thoroughly and enjoyed the company they kept rather than focusing on shoveling food into their mouths. I’ve noticed a similar effect in the checkout line at the grocery store: A slender person usually has a cartful of healthy fruits and vegetables, lean meats and unprocessed, high fiber foods. The weight-challenged person has cookies, sugary juices or soda and overly processed convenience foods.
Retrain Your Brain
If you want to look a certain way, it takes more than a single decision to “start a diet” or “get more exercise.” It is a series of decisions that occur throughout the day. When you think you are hungry, try to catch yourself. Pause, and make a conscious decision. Ask yourself: Am I bored? Am I thirsty? Am I tired? Do I want that food only because it’s there? Am I following the crowd? (When you get together with friends and have a drink because everyone else is having one, do you ever ask yourself if you really want that drink?)
I have read that the human brain develops paths that deepen as we make the same decision over and over. It is easier to follow the well-worn path of your thinking than it is to form a new path. This may be why we get more set in our ways as we age—because our brains go straight to the same conclusion without stopping to consider other options.
At each of these moments, there is an opportunity to make a small but important decision. It’s easy to forget your resolve and grab a cookie or drink that glass of wine. It’s much harder to remember you have a choice. You can grab some food as a quick fix, or you can distract yourself with a phone call to a friend. You can order a glass of wine or ask for seltzer with lemon. The more often you make the smart choice, the easier it becomes. (Don’t worry if your friends whine that you are “being good.” They are also admiring your resolve.)
If you want to change how you think about food, you have to actively work to trail-break a new path in your brain. The new path eventually becomes the chosen path, and your brain gets there more easily.
Jean Nidetch told her followers to put down your fork. “Let go of the instrument that made you fat,” she said. She also said that she used to eat her rewards. In the end, she said, “The reward is self-respect.”