Top Diets 2004: Weight Watchers

Adding up and slimming down on Weight Watchers.

Melina Gerosa Bellows is editor-in-chief of National Geographic Kids magazine.

Some people say dieting is a science. Others consider it an art. At Weight Watchers, losing weight is just math.

Three years ago I moved from New York City to Washington to relaunch a magazine. The process was like giving birth, and once it was over I had the weight to prove it. I looked up my old friend Weight Watchers.

It was a reunion of sorts. Ten years earlier I had shed 15 pounds and kept the weight off for a year, earning me Lifetime Membership status. Over the next decade, I dabbled in dietdom, tryingall the latest trends–the Zone, Atkins, weekly sessions with a nutritionist. Everything worked. Getting thin has never been my problem–it's living my life in the corset of restrictive diets that I can't stay with over the long haul.

Would Weight Watchers work for me again? An estimated 8,000 to 9,000 members attend weekly Weight Watchers sessions in 41 locations around the Washington area. Despite the popularity of various fad diets, membership has remained constant, says Marlene Luber of Weight Watchers: "New programs come and go, but our members know we've been here for a long time, and they come back."

Why? "It's easy to follow, and people can do it long-term," she says. "It's also about group support and accountability."

At my first return visit, I brandish my Lifetime Membership card and step on the scale. The receptionist and I wait for the digital verdict. When the red number finally stops blinking, I am horrified.

"Is that metric?" I ask. The receptionist shakes her head sympathetically.

In 13 months, I had put on 17 pounds. It's time to get with the program.

Weight Watchers works on the FlexPoints system. Foods are assigned points based on calories, fat grams, and fiber grams per serving. It's sort of like Monopoly money. You get to "spend" an allotted number of points every day based on your current weight. (I get 20.) You get another 35 points a week to splurge.

Members are pushed to adopt healthy weight-loss habits. It's the common-sense stuff Mom tried to teach you: portion control, a well-balanced daily diet of five servings of fruits and vegetables, two or three servings of milk, lean protein, with the bulk of your calories from whole grains. You're also supposed to limit the fun (fats, sugar, and alcohol), take a multivitamin, and drink six glasses of water a day.

The first challenge is learning how to "spend" your points. You start with a "Week 1 gettingstarted" booklet, which contains a food list and a "pointsfinder," which helps you convert the information on nutrition labels into points. Bagel with cream cheese and lox: 12 points! Apple: 1 point! McDonald's French fries, small portion: 5 points! Asparagus, eggplant, tomatoes: 0 points!

In my first week I lose seven pounds. The second week I drop another two. After that I shrink at the slow but steady rate of a few pounds a month. In a year and a half I shed 23 pounds, becoming so wonderfully thin that even my skinny jeans are baggy.

There are challenges–and setbacks. Eating within your points range at home is one thing, but facing down delicious meals in a restaurant is another.

Perhaps the biggest advantage to Weight Watchers–and the reason it works–is its flexibility. No food is verboten. If you plan right, you can save most of your points for a big meal and dip into your bank of 35 FlexPoints if you go over budget. Once you know how much certain foods will "cost" you, you can pick your battles. Sure, you can have that Caesar salad (7 points) and steak (10 points), but wouldn't you rather have a martini (3 points), green salad with balsamic vinaigrette dressing (2 points), lobster (1 point) with a nice glass of Pinot Noir (2 points), mango sorbet (2 points), a nonfat cappuccino (2 points), and a couple of biscotti (2 points) instead? You can satisfy your hankering for pretty much anything–just not everything on the same day.

Weekly meetings keep members motivated with tips on how to stretch points and resist temptation and pep talks to get you through plateaus–not to mention the guilt when you can't believe you ate the whole thing.

"Do I have any issues, problems, or challenges out there today?" asks leader Kim Steele King, who teaches at the K Street location in Northwest DC. Kim always shares new information about low-point foods (Boca burgers, Skinny Cow ice-cream sandwiches, salsa), and she's been known to spend whole sessions on navigating restaurant menus.

"I had pizza last night," says one woman.

"So a piece of pizza will cost you seven points. How many did you have?" says Kim.

"I had one," she says. "One whole pizza."

"We have an expression for that, don't we?" says Kim.

"Slip happens!" says the group in unison.

Kim whips out a hobbyhorse, the kiddie kind, and hands it to the woman.

"You just need to get back on the horse!" she says. "C'mon, everyone, let's give her a little love."

We clap as the pizza lover promises to climb back on the horse.

It may sound corny–but the following week the woman raises her hand to announce that she's lost four pounds.

My weight is currently on the upswing. On Weight Watchers hiatus, I'm at work on another launch–of the human variety. At least I know where I'll go to get back in shape after the baby is bornin July.

Fad diets may come and go, but my old friend Weight Watchers will be waiting.