Bottomless Soup Bowl

After discussing the effects of volume and duration (the “space-time continuum” as applied to dieting), Wansink describes what is probably his most (in)famous experiment, the Bottomless Soup Bowl.
The Bottomless Soup Bowl experiment took place in the Spice Box, the experimental restaurant dining room sponsored by the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Wansink and his fellow researchers arranged four 18-oz soup bowls around a table. Two of the bowls were connected to food-grade tubing, which was connected in turn to six-quart vats of Campbell’s Tomato Soup. The vats were kept out of sight, and the height was adjusted so that the level of soup in the bowls was at the same height as the liquid in the vats. As the diners ate their soup, the trick bowls refilled, but not to the top. Rather, the level dropped, providing some indication that progress had been made. As Wansink tells it, there were a few kinks to be worked out, and not just in the tubing:
Of the 62 people who showed up for lunch, only two discovered what was occurring. One bent down to retrieve a dropped napkin, and quickly pointed out the Borg-like tubing under the table to the rest of his lunch companions. The second person had a much more dramatic experience. Forgetting for a moment that he was not at a medieval banquet, this man picked up the bowl to drink out of it as if he were channeling one of his Viking ancestors. It made a loud gurgle and the tomato soup-filled tube slithered up through the table like a coral snake. This made the woman next to him shriek, and the man across from him tipped over his chair in his haste to escape. These two people and their companions were dropped from the study. None of the other 54 suspected a thing.
To me, there is an interesting lesson to be drawn from the Bottomless Soup Bowl. As you know if you’ve been reading my earlier WHEE diaries, Dr. David Kessler argued in his book The End of Overeating that the American food industry is making processed food irresistible through the addition of sugar, fat, and salt. What the Bottomless Soup Bowl shows is that sugar and fat (at least) aren’t necessary to keep us eating more and more. In fact, the diners with the trick bowls at the Spice Box ate more than 50% more soup on average. Wansink says that some ate more than a quart of soup! That’s three times what the diners with the normal bowls ate.
For Wansink, the most important lesson is that we aren’t good at estimating the number of calories in our food. The “normal” diners underestimated their calories by about 20 percent – they thought they’d eaten around 123 calories, but had actually consumed over 150. The other diners thought they’d eaten 127 calories,  but they’d actually consumed 268 calories on average – their estimates were off by over 100 percent. Yet most of the bottomless bowl diners reported feeling no more full than did the others.
Wansink then refers to other studies to show that the 20% underestimate is not just an artifact of his experiment. In fact, the 20% is a typical underestimate – for normal-weight people, that is. Overweight and obese people underestimate their calorie by 30, 40, or even 50%. But these studies are not common knowledge:
Scientists, physicians, and counselors have often blamed overweight people for trying to fool others (or themselves) about how much they’re eating. Some dieticians, physicians, and family members tell them flat out that they’re “lying” or “in denial.” Hurtful accusations like these only make diet counseling effective at scaring off overweight people, rather than changing them.
Why are overweight people more inaccurate in their estimates? Wansink suggests that in fact, everyone is less accurate at estimating calories as meals get larger. In fact, says Wansink:
It seems that when estimating almost anything–such as weight, height, brightness, loudness, sweetness, and so on–we consistently underestimate things as they get larger…That Popsicle-stick skinny person eating a 2,000-calorie Thanksgiving dinner will underestimate how much he’s eaten by just as much as the heavy person eating a 2,000-calorie pizza dinner. The trouble is that the heavy person tends to eat a whole lot more large meals.
Reengineering Strategy #2: 
See All You Eat 
As I noted in my previous diary, Wansink closes each chapter with a healthy eating strategy related to the lessons of the chapter. This chapter’s strategy is a two-part strategy:
“See it before you eat it” 
Rather than eating from a Bottomless Bowl of tomato soup – or worse yet, a Bottomless Bowl of ice cream or candy – preplate your food. Decide how much you’re going to eat, take it out of the larger container, and put it in a smaller container before you eat it. Make it easy to see the level going down, like the subjects in the Spice Box who had the normal bowls, rather than the Bottomless Bowls.
“See it while you eat it” 
Or rather, keep the empties visible while you’re deciding whether to have more. If you’re eating chicken wings, keep the bones on your plate while you decide whether to have seconds. The same applies to beverages, says Wansink. If you’re serving wine at your dinner party,
…keep the empty wine bottles on the table and pour refills into fresh glasses, without clearing the others. This should help stretch your supply of North Dakota wine.

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Mirror Neurons And Eating Behavior

Below are some great articles about eating and mirror neurons that are easy to read and understand
Mirror Neurons And Eating Behavior

Another reason that we eat more with people that are overweight is because of something called “Mirror Neurons”.
Click on the link below for the waitress study, or go to the next slide for more information on mirror neurons.
Might an overweight waitress make you eat more? How the body type of others is sufficient to alter our food consumption

How Your Friends Can Make You Overeat

– Sabatouers and mirror neurons.

Check this out :

Why Looking at Overweight People Makes Us Want to Eat More, Not Less

Mirror neurons work automatically and unconsciously so if you would like to keep your healthy weight then you must learn to work with them. You see, mirror neurons can be your best friend or your worst enemy. In our brains they reproduce the activities that we are observing. So if you see somebody eating a chocolate brownie “chocolate brownie eating” parts of your brain get activated and so increases your desire to eat one. Even just looking at photos can activate these areas of our brains and motivate us to eat. The more our mirror neurons are exposed to eating, the more powerful the brain activation and the more intense the craving.

As you watch your friends eating the chocolate brownie your mirror neurons are telling your brain what’s going on, but your pleasure centers are shut happy because they are not getting any stimulation. This amps up your cravings even more, because now your brian begins to ANTICIPATE what eating the brownie would be like. You start to think how delicious it would taste. You think how the texture would feel in your mouth and how you would feel if you just took a bite. This is all the workings of your brain, as it goes through your past experiences of eating foods similar to the chocolate brownie.

You are doing well if you have still managed to hold out, but next comes the biggest craving. The greatest brain activation is achieved when anticipation is paired with a degree of uncertainty. So you have your limbic system telling you how delicious it will be, your mirror neurons are activating the movement patterns that are associated with eating the chocolate brownie, and your pre-frontal cortex is saying “No please, I have to stick to my diet!”. Under these conditions of “it might happen, it might not happen”, humans are extremely motivated to seek pleasure because we get an intense reward when it does occur. This is what you constantly face when you see people eating foods that you desire but cannot have. It’s not long before the intense cravings finally overpower your willpower and you give in to temptation.

The food industry knows about mirror neurons all too well. That’s why they place their food everywhere for you to see. They know that the more you are exposed to their advertisements the more you are likely to consume what they are selling. They are also extremely cunning in how they present their product. Have you ever noticed that food manufactures sell their products by having people consume them while having fun and being really happy. Its because these manufactures know that when you watch this the areas of your brain related to happiness and fun and pleasure get associated with their food or drink. Check it out the next time you watch an advertisement. Oh and isn’t it weird that the actors are almost always really good looking and in great shape? Its almost like consuming their product can help you with that too…..


In this study, researchers give a study participant some cookies to eat and then placed a plant/pacesetter beside them to share the cookies. The pacesetter is instructed to eat a certain number of cookies. This could be 6, 3, or just 1 cookie.
The results of this little experiment is always the same. Whatever the pacesetter ends up eating, the unsuspecting snacker ends up eating also. If the pacesetter eats 1, the snacker eats 1. If the pacesetter eats 6, the snacker eats 5 or 6.
As humans, we tend to eat the same as those that we eat with. This is because eating is a social, emotional, and intellectual activity, not just a necessity for our physical survival.

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How Food Cues Makes Us Eat More

Food and behavior researcher Brian Wansink conducted a study where he brought a group of people into a movie theater and separated them into two groups. The first group got a medium size bucket of popcorn, the second group recieved an extra large bucket of popcorn.
The catch was that the popcorn wasn’t fresh. In fact it was purposely stale. It was popped five days earlier and stored in sterile conditions until it was stale enough to squeak until it was eaten. However the study subjects had no idea, they were just happy to be watching a free movie with free popcorn.
After the movie, Wansink tallied how much popcorn was eaten. Amazingly, there were only 2 people who did not eat the popcorn out of the entire group! But that’s not all, the big-bucket group ate on average 173 more calories than the medium bucket group. Bear in mind that the only difference was the size of the popcorn bucket. This was 53% more! Give them a lot and they eat a lot, and this was 5 day old stale popcorn!
Why did almost everybody eat the popcorn? Because they were distracted by the movie, because everybody else was eating it, and because eating popcorn at a movie is the socially accepted thing to do. The environment trumped their taste buds as it almost always does.
Make junk foods and the foods you tend to overeat “inconvenient.” Put the ice cream in the garage or basement freezer and the cookies and chips in bins in the back of the pantry. Put the foods you want to eat (cut up fruit, yogurt, and veggies) out or in the front. Stack the deck in your favor with what you keep in your office drawer or at the front of your refrigerator because when you are hungry and out of time – the most convenient is likely to be the choice.

Beyond convenience, studies show that visible foods trigger eating in a way that is difficult to resist. One study found that secretaries reached into a clear candy bowl 71% more times than a white colored one. Visibility makes us “too mindful” of food. Neurochemically, the anticipation of food trips secretions that add to our craving and our overeating.
Unless you want to battle or overeat all day – don’t leave food, soda or items you really don’t want to eat- out. Don’t expect children to resist overeating snacks that are always visible.
Use visibility as a deterrent. Given that one of  Wansink’s studies showed that leaving the chicken bones from eating wings out on the table made people eat less, don’t get a clean plate – leave visible evidence of what you have already eaten in front of you.
Visual Cues as Guides
Historically many people will tell you that from an early age they were trained to use the plate as their norm for consumption (“the Clean Plate club”), rather than their bodily sense of fullness. Most can’t shake it.
In one of his most noted studies, “Bottomless Bowls,” Brian Wansink demonstrates how people’s use of visual cues makes them unable to correctly detect how much they are eating. In two groups, one eating out of normal soup bowls and one eating out of soup bowls rigged up from the bottom to keep refilling, those with the re-filling bowls not only did not recognize their bowls were refilling – they reported eating a similar amount as those in the normal soup bowl group. They had actually consumed 73% more soup.
If you are stuck with the clean plate club – use a smaller plate and a smaller glass and that will be a safer guide. In this culture of super-size and “Big Gulp” it is easy to lose perspective as well as your body’s sense of overload. Fill all the food you plan to eat on one plate- let be your portion. If, as they suggest at a buffet, you keep taking a new plate( resist this) – there is no telling how much you will eat.
Mindless Eating
Anything that takes our focus off the food makes us more likely to overeat. People eat more in front of TV, while reading, sitting at their desks, and snacking in the movies because they are eating in a mindless way.
If eating while viewing is a treasured activity – plan for it. Plan what you will eat and dish out the portion. Remember- people with big ice cream bowls dished out 31% more ice cream!
Social Influence
Research has found that smoking, deciding to get the flu shot, and taking vitamins are all socially contagious behaviors. But our friends have even more influence on how much we eat and drink. They affect our consumption norms and expectations.
Professors Fowler and Christakis found that having a friend who is gaining weight makes you 57% more likely to do so yourself. They consider that consciously or unconsciously, people use what others are eating as a gage for themselves- be it the oversized fries or the chocolate dessert.
Rather than getting mindlessly swept into overeating – plan what you will order before you meet your friend or go out with your partner.
Order extra water or a non-alcoholic beverage you like so that you can continue to drink while your companion continues to eat.
Divide and conquer- if your partner or friends are game, plan on dividing everything – you get to taste without overeating.

When you consider how easy it is to overeat without realizing what you are doing, slowing down or stopping can begin to feel overwhelming.
Consider experimenting with taking back control.
Try one of these simple strategies. In the long run in many ways: “Less can be more.”


Sweets in the workplace are just part of the problem. Your workplace could be  a minefield of temptations, so you need to have a good offensive strategy – and that means keeping foods out of sight (and mind), and making sure you have healthy alternatives available.  I had one patient who put a mini-refrigerator in her office to stash her lunch and healthy snacks – so she could avoid the lunch room altogether.
Vending machines have a way of calling out to you – especially around 3 or 4 PM when you’re hitting an afternoon slump.  So again, make that food harder to get.  Maybe you don’t keep cash with you at work, or maybe you find another route to the restroom that doesn’t take you past the vending machine.  Better yet, bring healthy snacks to work with you – some fresh fruit, a handful of nuts, some low fat cheese and whole grain crackers, or a carton of yogurt.
Here’s something else that helps.  Next time you’re faced with food that you know you shouldn’t have – and probably don’t even really want – ask yourself this:  “if this (doughnut, cold pizza, stale popcorn) weren’t here, would I go out of my way to get it”?

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Why Are Some Foods So Delicious?

For some people food is just fuel, for most of us it is more, sometimes a lot more. Throughout most of our history our primary drive has been to seek out and acquire food. We have a built in mechanism to sustain this drive – our reward system. Whenever we eat food and sometimes when we just think about it, chemicals in our brain stimulate certain brain ares that give us a sensation of pleasure.

Certain foods are more rewarding than others. Scientists call this quality “palatability”. When we say that a food is palatable, oftentimes we are referring to its taste. Here though, palatability refers to a food’s ability to stimulate our appetite and prompt us to eat more. Palatability of course involves taste, but it primarily involves our motivation to pursue certain foods. It’s the reason that when it comes to certain foods, we just can’t stop eating.

What makes a food palatable? A food’s palatability is largely dependent on the food’s ability to engage all of your senses. This experience is called your perception and is a subjective experience for all of us. It explains why you may like certain foods but your friend may not. We all have different perceptions on how something tastes, smells, looks or feels which in turn creates an experience that is unique to you. Food that stimulates all of senses has the potential to create intense memories. This was the basis for one of the most famous books of all time, Swann’s Way, usually called “A Remembrance of Things Past” by Marcel Proust.

When we describe food, people usually talk about taste. When it tastes really good we say it is “delicious”. But when we eat, taste is only one of the senses that use. We also describe the SMOOTH, CREAMY pleasure of our favorite chocolate cake, the RICH AROMA of our favorite coffee, or the CRISPY texture of our favorite fried shrimp. Any food writer knows the importance of highlighting these characteristics to make the food seem more desirable and appetizing.

The food industry knows exactly how to create this experience for you, and they do everything in their power to provide a bite that will MELT in your mouth. Here is a short description of an entree that I picked up at a restaurant recently:

“Juicy fire–grilled chicken breast drizzled with our Jack Daniel’s® glaze and some crispy Cajun–spiced fried shrimp with dipping sauce. Our creamy mashed potatoes and veggies seal the satisfaction. “

Now you may not be hungry, but just reading that will definitely tickle your taste buds. Just the words on the page will create a picture in your mind of what this dish would look, taste, smell and feel like in your mouth. All of this is packaged together to create a perception of the experience we would have if we could eat this meal right now. This perception sends massive anticipatory reactions to the pleasure centers of your brain and you say “ That SOUNDS scrumptious, I think I’ll have that!”

It is this anticipation of stimulation which motivates you to eat long after your physical drives for food have been satisfied. It is why you can’t stop thinking about desert even though you have just started to eat your main course, because you know how delicious desert will be. Humans like to be entertained and have pleasure. The way food is presented to us in today’s society, entertainment and pleasure can easily be satisfied by simply going to your local restaurant.

So the next time you call something “creamy and moist”, realize that you are probably not eating to satisfy your physical hunger, but instead to delight your senses.

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Grazing/Snacking myths

Until recent human history, eating food in-between meals was not even heard of. The behavior was not even considered. It was foreign and it was common knowledge that everybody got their daily intake of food eating meals. That was it.

There were a few exceptions to this norm. Babies and toddlers needed to eat more frequently than adults, simply because their stomachs are too small to hold any excess calories. This is still true today. Babies and toddlers eat small frequent meals because that is how their bodies are designed to eat.

The second exception was active teenagers. Such people were often involved in heavy manual labor, and possibly athletics. With a growing body and such high expenditure of calories, it made sense that this group would also require some supplemental food throughout the day, if only to keep up with their tremendous workload. Today, teenage athletes still may require some snacks throughout the day, but since most teenagers are far more sedentary then ever before, the normal mealtime is more than sufficient.

Outside of these examples, there is very little evidence to suggest that snacking is a good behavior for any individual, especially adults. Adults have more than enough capacity to eat a meal that will sustain them until their next meal. Adults can also have the self-discipline to wait until their next meal, and in doing so to be a role-model for others.

The correct answer is that eating all the time helps you accumulate and store body fat.
Many people, including some “experts” believe that it is important to eat all the time, or to “graze”, for the following reasons:

#1 – Grazing will help you maintain a steady blood sugar level

The idea here is that we all need a constant and steady supply of sugar from food to ensure that we maintain adequate blood sugar levels. This is partially true. Yes our blood sugar needs to remain within a certain range, but no, we are not supposed to do that by grazing on food! We all have plenty of sugar in our livers and in our fat cells. Once the sugar in the liver is depleted, then our bodies move to using our fat. This is how our body maintains an adequate blood sugar level. If we graze we never allow our bodies to use those fat reserves and therefore that fat will stay exactly where it is no matter what you do.

#2 – Grazing will help you keep hunger at bay

The idea here is that eating on a constant basis will keep you from becoming hungry. There are a few problems with this. The first is that the old primitive part of your brain wants you to eat at all time. If it thinks that you will always eat when you are hungry then it will always make you hungry, even if you have plenty of energy and nutrients in your system. Secondly, by never allowing yourself to become a little hungry you forget what that sensation is. You become unaware of what hunger really feels like and you train yourself to avoid it at all costs by constantly grazing.

#3 – Grazing maintains your energy levels

Again the idea here is that by grazing you will somehow be giving your body a constant supply of energy. This misconception is derived from the notion that as soon as you eat food, it is converted into energy immediately and therefore can be used immediately. What actually happens is that when food enters the stomach, our body needs to break it down and decide what it is going to do with it. Some food will be used, some will be stored, and what is not needed will be eliminated. However, when you graze the food that you eat will almost always be stored.

The reason is that grazing promotes a constant release of insulin which is the storage hormone. When insulin is present it hoards all of the energy that is derived from the food and sticks it into your fat cells. It doesn’t matter if your cells are screaming for some energy, when insulin is present it will store everything if it can. So you could end up in a situation where you have very low levels of cell energy because all of the food that you are eating is going straight into your fat cells! This is what the behavior of grazing can do for you, and this is the most potent recipe for fat accumulation.
If you want to learn more about hunger click here…

Cultures that snack more have higher rates of obesity
In America, 26% of total calories are consumed as snacks outside of meals. That’s twice as high as the rate of calories consumed as snacks in 1976. The obesity rate is now over 31%.
In France, 10% of total calories are presently consumed as snacks and the obesity rate is correspondingly lower at 12%.
In China, 3% of total calories are presently consumed as snacks and the obesity rate is only 5%.
Many stdies correltate rise in obesity with snacking
Click here on blog post of that study

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Insulin and Weight loss – Keyword


Insulin is a very important hormone, but when we eat too frequently we produce too much of the storage hormone.
The Cure For Insulin
Fortunately there is quite an simple cure for insulin. This cure does not require that you take expensive pills or medication, or that you consume anything. The cure for insulin actually requires that you do the opposite.
When we eat, insulin is secreted into our blood stream. Insulin takes the energy from that food and puts it into various cells including our fat cells for later usage.
When we stop eating, the levels of insulin in our blood stream drops. This allows the energy that is in our fat cells to be slowly released into the bloodstream so that other cells in the body can use that energy.
The cure for chronically elevated insulin then is quite simple. Eat some food in the form of a meal, stop eating, and then do not eat until your next meal. With this eating structure (which is the structure all humans throughout history have used), levels of insulin return to normal and your body will finally release fat instead of hoarding and accumulating it.

(Put in video of fat head insluin clip)

6 Meals A DAY Hypothesis

Currently there are a lot of recommendations that people should eat 5 or 6 small meals throughout the day rather than the standard 2 or 3 larger meals. The idea is that by eating smaller meals your metabolism will increase, thus burning more calories
Does this theory stand up?
According to research, the theory is actually true yet insignificant in the big picture. Byeating smaller meals throughout the day you will be able to increase your metabolism by about 30 calories. However there are many problems with this frequent meal eating approach.
The first and most obvious is that 30 calories per day really isn’t that much. It’s not even enough to cover a small spoon of peanut butter. In order to make this work then, you would need to meticulously measure and prepare your meals so that you are eating the exact amount of calories. In other words, you would need to be on a very strict diet.
Another, often overlooked problem with this eating strategy, is what it does to your levels of insulin. When you are constantly eating your body will be releasing insulin into your bloodstream. This hormone takes calories and stores them as fat. It also prevents the release of any of your current fat stores. So you may be burning an extra 30 calories, but you could still be getting fatter because all that eating is flooding your bloodstream with insulin!
Finally, eating more frequently throughout the day gives you permission to eat whenever you want. All unskillful eaters have this problem. They have no boundaries, no rules. This is a sure-fire way to accumulate unwanted body fat.
A simple solution is to return to a set-schedule eating pattern with two or three meals per day. This will ensure that you are not nibbling and snacking throughout the day, which is the primary culprit when it comes to gaining weight.
Again the idea here is that by grazing you will somehow be giving your body a constant supply of energy. This misconception is derived from the notion that as soon as you eat food, it is converted into energy immediately and therefore can be used immediately. What actually happens is that when food enters the stomach, our body needs to break it down and decide what it is going to do with it. Some food will be used, some will be stored, and what is not needed will be eliminated. However, when you graze the food that you eat will almost always be stored.

The reason is that grazing promotes a constant release of insulin which is the storage hormone. When insulin is present it hoards all of the energy that is derived from the food and sticks it into your fat cells. It doesn’t matter if your cells are screaming for some energy, when insulin is present it will store everything if it can. So you could end up in a situation where you have very low levels of cell energy because all of the food that you are eating is going straight into your fat cells! This is what the behavior of grazing can do for you, and this is the most potent recipe for fat accumulation.

So when we graze we get fat and then we go on a diet to lose weight. This locks doen our fat stores so when we restore our normal eating pattern our body doesn’t allow any fat to be released anymore. You have just trained yourself to store and hoard instead of release and use!

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Do Weight Loss Programs Actually Work?

(This post was taken off the web and needs to be altered if we are going to use it)

Weight Watchers Works. For Two Out of a Thousand. (And They Probably Weren’t Fat to Begin With)
January 24, 2008 — fatfu
posted by fatfu

One of the things you often hear – even among fat activists – is that 95% of weight loss attempts fail long-term. It sounds like an impressively discouraging number, but still, it leaves us with the idea that 5% of fat people are able to leave their corpulence behind and join the world of respectable, acceptable, normal-weight humanity. Or at least get somewhere in the vicinity.

We should be so lucky. When weight loss failure numbers are presented (generally 80-95% failure) “success” doesn’t mean achieving “normal weight” – let alone permanently. It means the ability to keep off some very modest amount that a given researcher (usually with a vested interest in the weight loss strategy) has arbitrarily defined as ”weight loss success.” Typically 5-10% weight loss maintained anywhere from 1 to 5 years.

If that’s enough to make you thin, then I have news for you: you weren’t fat.

And studies that look at “successful losers” – unusual as they are even when defined by such a low bar – find the overwhelming majority are in the process of regaining, they’re just taking a little longer than average in getting back to baseline.

In reality, people who go from “obese” to “normal weight” and maintain it for more than a few years are so rare that nobody knows just how rare because no weight loss study has been large enough or rigorous enough to detect a significant number of them. You can look everywhere (and I have) for a respectable study that gives you this number and you won’t find it.

Weight Watchers – More like Two in a Thousand Success Rate?
But Weight Watchers has sort of spilled the beans on this well-kept secret. At least it gives us a number to start making deductions. They come in a recent article published in the British Journal of Nutrition by Michael Lowe, an assuredly unbiased Weight Watchers consultant, who hopes to convince us that successful weight loss is more common than the studies say. Mainly by spinning really horrible numbers in the best possible light.

His study is an update of one he did in 2001, and since the current article is pay per view, and I’m too cheap and ornery to spend my money on an article promoting the diet industry, I went with the 2001 version, which examined results from the early 90s. Yes, the older results are slightly worse than the newer results appear from the abstract, but as you’ll see later – it hardly matters.

Lowe surveyed Weight Watchers participants who became “Lifetime Members” in the years 1992 to 1996 to see how they did after one to five years. Lifetime Members are only “the most successful” Weight Watchers members who achieve their “goal weight” (usually a BMI of 25) and maintain it for 6 weeks. After that they get to attend for free.

Apparently Lowe felt we could better appreciate how well Weight Watchers works if we confine our examination to the people who do incredibly well on it. I bet the pharmaceutical companies wish they could get away with that.

Anyway it seem relevant to know how representative the lifetime members are – that is how many Weight Watchers members actually reach their goal weight. The article doesn’t say. Naturally. Somewhere towards the end Lowe admits that the these people are only a “fraction” of the people who join Weight Watchers, but he doesn’t let us in on what fraction they are. Just that there have been 189,000 from a five-year period. Or 38,000 per year (give or take).

38,000 people who reached goal weight per year sounds like a lot. But actually it turns out to be a really small number. I found a business article from back then that stated that Weight Watchers had 600,000 attendees in the U.S. in 1993. Divide 38,000 lifetime members per year into 600,000 and my calculator says that each year only about 6% of Weight Watchers members (give or take) reached their goal weight (presumably 94% failed).

Now before you get all impressed with Weight Watcher’s 6% success rate, let’s step back. For one thing, the successful 6% weren’t so fat in the first place. The 2001 study says that most were between a BMI of 25-30 (i.e. “overweight” but not “obese” – to use definitions I find silly). The 2007 abstract says the average starting BMI for that study was 27 – which is well below the average Weight Watchers participant. So in order to achieve goal weight the average lifetime member probably had to lose less than 10 lbs and would have to include a lot of people who had even less to lose.

So we’re not talking about massive weight loss here. And what about maintenance? The study spins it this way: of these successful losers, “weight regain from 1 to 5 y following weight loss ranged between 31.5 and 76.5%. At 5 y, 19.4% were within 5 lb of goal weight, 42.6% maintained a loss of 5% or more, 18.8% maintained a loss of 10% or more, and 70.3% were below initial weight.” He concludes that these results “suggest that the long-term prognosis for weight maintenance among individuals who reach goal weight in at least one commercial program is better than that suggested by existing research.”

That’s sounds promising. But actually, wait. Some of those numbers aren’t too impressive on second glance, e.g. that 20% staying within 5 lb of goal weight is kind of meaningless – since we don’t know how many of them were within 5 lb in the first place. That 76% of weight lost is regained isn’t too impressive either, considering they didn’t have that much to lose to begin with.

And what about the number we’re really looking for – how many people actually become “normal” weight long-term using Weight Watchers? It turns out only 3.9% of the golden 6% were still at or below goal weight after 5 years. By my calculations that means 3.9%*6.3% = 0.24% or about two out of a thousand Weight Watchers participants who reached goal weight stayed there for more than five years.

Two in a thousand? I hear you cry. That doesn’t sound so bad! I’m a disciplined person! I can be one of two in a thousand!

Maybe. But remember, not only are you competing with people that have to keep off two pounds. There’s also this: there are innumerable medical conditions that cause weight loss weight loss and wasting including cancer, drug abuse, thyroid problem and AIDS. (I started listing them in my head and had to stop because I completely lost track of the topic.) It’s reasonable to expect that at least two in a thousand Weight Watchers members fall into one of these categories and was going to lose a lot of weight regardless. This is why you do controlled studies to determine the efficacy of a treatment, you know – to adjust for all those people who were going to get better (or in this case lose weight) anyway.

In fact the combined annual incidence rate of medical conditions that can cause significant weight loss far exceeds two in a thousand by orders of magnitude. I would actually have predicted far more “successful losers” in a random population just from a back of the envelope calculation.

Which makes me wonder: how the hell are the Weight Watchers dieters (excuse me “lifestyle changers”) so successfully avoiding weight loss? What’s their trick?

Science or Not?
Now what I’ve just done. Is this any relationship to science? Picked out the most damning numbers in a slightly less successful study to paint a dismal portrait of Weight Watchers? Of course it’s not science. And I could have pointed out that the most successful 6% did manage to keep off a few pounds on average after five years. I could have mentioned that the 2007 study claimed a 16% goal weight maintenance after five years – of which I’m skeptical – but which would have translated to ten in a thousand instead of two in a thousand Weight Watchers members (woohoo). I could have conceded that some of the Weight Watchers members who didn’t achieve their goal weight might have come close.

But why should I feel obligated to do that when weight loss researchers – including this one – aren’t engaged in anything remotely related to science either. And when they feel no compulsion to be honest or transparent, selectively culling data to play up the faintest glimmers of hope, and downplay the overwhelmingly negative evidence — purely to promote a treatment that is wildly unsuccessful. And leading millions to believe that if we’re fat we can be thin. Because unless we’re extremely lucky – lottery lucky – we can’t.

There’s This Thing Called Informed Consent
But mainly I just raised the bar for “weight loss success” to the level that most people have in mind when they start a weight loss program. I don’t feel the least bit apologetic about this, because weight loss industry advocates for decades have been quietly lowering the bar further and further down so that by now their definition of “a successful weight loss program” bears little relation to what the ordinary person would think it means.

When you hear diet drug claims that they “double” weight loss – it’s probably true – they probably had a study where their 2 lb weight loss doubled the average of 1 lb weight loss.

Which is why a popular topic for weight loss researchers to write about these days is whether “unrealistic weight loss expectations” matter. This is code for “should we feel guilty about the fact that when we talk about ‘success’ we’ve come to mean something completely different from what the public’s been duped into thinking we mean?”

I have a two-word answer: informed consent.

(By the way, if anyone wants a good review of the data out there on weight loss programs I suggest UCLA’s study.)

Update: Oops, blew it. I looked at my notes again and the lifetime membership was 189,000 not 100,000. Which means that Weight Watchers had a whole 2 out of a thousand success rate. My bad. Now don’t all stampede to Weight Watchers, people. One at a time.

Update 2: Numbers in the article fixed.

Weight Watchers Works. For Two Out of a Thousand. (And They Probably Weren’t Fat to Begin With)

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