THE BUSINESS OF DIETING Programmed to lose
Weight-loss programs expect a surge of customers to start the new year.
By JANE GLENN HAAS
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
WHAT DID MORE THAN 200 MIL-lion Americans -- mostly women -- do when the clock struck midnight this week? They kissed their sweethearts, drank a toast, sang "Auld Lang Syne" and vowed to go on a diet.
Little wonder Weight Watchers is a major sponsor of the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade or that its fliers offering free registration for New Year's dieters are in mailboxes.
Even the Florida-based eDiets.com is ready for a cyber weigh-in onslaught, insisting that its full nutrition staff of 140 people be by their computers from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week in January to offer information and support.
Those in the business of catering to those seeking to lose weight expect to win big this year after headlines that obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States.
More physicians will prescribe weight-loss programs in 2003 -- particularly since the IRS ruled this year that the cost of these programs are eligible as a medical-expense tax deduction when prescribed by a doctor -- says Linda Carilli, spokeswoman for Weight Watchers International.
Many will sign up online. Despite the overall dot.com collapse, the most successful online diet program, eDiets, has seen its membership soar from 33,000 two years ago to more than 225,000 today.
Nell Kenyon, who dropped 30 pounds in three months on eDiets in 2002, says she's signing up again. Kenyon will be among those getting meal plans, recipes and fitness suggestions designed for her personal needs from a computer program. She can access cyber-support groups and message nutrition specialists.
"I gained back ten of the 30 pounds I lost, but this time, I expect to keep it off," says Kenyon, an Orange County, Calif., resident who prefers the convenience of computer dieting to attending support-group meetings such as those of Weight Watchers.
But Becky Shumway, who shows up Sundays for the 9 a.m. Weight Watchers meetings in Orange County, credits weekly meetings with helping her keep her yearlong resolution to lose. She ended 2002 down 58 pounds and three dress sizes.
A continual habit
According to the Calorie Control Council, a food and beverage association, 25 percent of Americans are always dieting, and an additional 47 percent try on and off to lose weight during the year.
"All diets can work," says Susan Burke, head of eDiets' nutrition program. "The point is, what happens after you go off a diet? What lifestyle and behavior changes have you made?"
And at Shumway's Weight Watchers meeting, leader Lenora Forschner encouraged the 21 people in the room to "think about the successes you've had this year; think about how your behavior has changed."
The granddaddy of weight-loss programs, Weight Watchers, celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2003.
Founded as a support group by New York housewife Jean Nidetch, who wanted help staying on her cardiac diet, today Weight Watchers promotes "Points," a food system that values a food portion based on its calories, fat and fiber content.
Beverly Warren lost 36 pounds following the Weight Watchers program six years ago, then managed to gain it all back. "I did real well until I started giving myself permission to eat this or that," she says. "I came back to face the music."
She has lost 11 pounds in 13 weeks on the Points plan.
Sunday-morning "regulars" gain motivation from one another, she says, pointing out the Schaffers, Lee and Karen, who attend together.
In the past year, Karen Schaffer has lost 55 pounds and her husband, Lee, 30 pounds. "The biggest help is that we're both on the program together," says Karen Schaffer. "We don't call it a diet. We call it a lifestyle change."
The Schaffers are unique. About 80 percent of the people following either Weight Watchers or eDiets are women.
Men tend to think dieting is a "woman's thing," says Alisson Tanner, chief strategist for eDiets. That's why the firm has launched eFitness.com, a site to attract men to a weight-loss program based on fitness with a meal plan instead of eDiets' meal plan with a fitness program.
A handful of men were at Sunday's Weight Watchers meeting, including Allen Johncox, an attorney, whose wife lost weight -- and keeps weight off -- following the Weight Watchers program.
"We had a bet for the World Series that if the Angels won, I'd sign up for Weight Watchers," Johncox says. "I figured she'd lose that bet. Well, you know what happened."
Sunday, after eight weeks on Weight Watchers, Johncox had lost 22.8 pounds, including five pounds over Christmas.
He lost the weight, he says, by watching the size of his portions and by writing down everything he ate in a daily journal.
Johncox has a new goal: to lose 30 pounds by Super Bowl Sunday, Jan. 26, and to complete a 10K walk/run that day.
"I think I'll make it," Johncox says.