Three years ago, on the last Friday in August, I walked into my first Weight Watchers meeting with a friend.
I signed up and weighed in and took a seat for the meeting. I'm not sure what exactly I expected. A room full of frumpy middle-aged women? A scolding for my lifetime of bad eating habits? Reinforcement of the self-loathing I felt every time I saw a reflection of myself? I was pleasantly surprised. My fellow WW members were a mixed bag of people who looked healthy, self-confident, and perfectly normal. The meeting leader was funny as hell. The program, which is basically Calorie Counting for Dummies, seemed easy enough to follow, and I could still eat chips and guacamole and margaritas, and chocolate pudding and brie, in moderation at least.
One thing differentiated me from everyone else in the room. I was a week away from racing in my first-ever half-ironman triathlon. At that point I had completed three marathons, seven triathlons of varying lengths, and a handful of shorter running races, and at 5'10" I weighed 226 pounds.
I got a lot of exercise. I was swimming, biking and running 12 to 16 hours per week. And while I felt pretty smug at that first meeting knowing that I was so physically fit despite the extra weight I carried -- so much more fit than everyone else in the room, I was sure -- I was there for the same reason as everyone else: Without help, I was unable to lose weight. I was eating too much.
I was also in complete denial about my weight. The first year I kept a written log of my running and triathlon training, in the log space where I was supposed to record my daily weight, I wrote in numbers that are meaningless to me now. What was "41"? The number pounds I wanted to lose? Five years later, I have no idea.
After that first meeting I took home my little points tracker, started measuring portions and writing down everything I ate, and started losing weight. I lost 25 pounds in the first 12 weeks. After a year I hit 50 pounds. It was hard work, but it was also easy in some ways. When I find something to obsess about, I tend to obsess long and hard until I burn out. And for those first 12 weeks I was completely focused on counting points, weighing in every week, and getting the approving nod from the meeting receptionist when I posted a loss on the scale.
As I lost weight and people started noticing, I was amazed at how many other Weight Watchers came out of the woodwork. Longtime friends and family members, when I told them my weight-loss "secret," would say, "Oh, I've been counting points for years," or "I'm a lifetime member!" All sorts of people came out: fellow endurance athletes, geeks, people I assumed had "skinny genes," my mom's friends. All my life I was surrounded by WW members, and I didn't know it. I was overweight since grade school and technically obese for many years, and it never occurred to me that WW might work for me.
The most important lesson I have learned from my experience with WW, and from my ongoing issues with eating, is that weight loss is about balancing calories in and calories out. There are no secrets or tricks. And for me, decreasing food intake is a much easier way to achieve that balance than adding exercise. (In fact, when I signed up for my first marathon training program, early on the coach announced to the group, "If you've come here to lose weight, you're in the wrong place.")
I have kept most of that weight off, although I still struggle daily with overeating. I love food, I love wine, and I must resist the urge eat out of boredom all afternoon. Baking is a vice and a comfort. My evening dose of wine and cheese is a habit I am having a hard time giving up.
WW is not a perfect program, and it doesn't work for everyone. In fact, after my meeting attendance lapsed, I have gone back several times to try to find the motivation to lose the last 20 or so pounds, and every time I have quit after a few weeks.
But I do not exaggerate when I say that joing Weight Watchers on that day three years ago changed my life. When I tried on my first pair of non-plus-size pants since college, I cried in the dressing room. And for once, it was the good kind of tears.
August 26, 2005 4:05 PM