With Weight Watchers’ new SmartPoints, I keep seeing some variation of the following: Weight Watchers is now a diet that isn’t sustainable for the long haul. You can’t eat like that for a lifetime. Weight Watchers is no longer a lifestyle, but a restrictive diet. Is this true? Or, to broaden it beyond Weight Watchers, is “healthy eating” so restrictive that it can’t be followed for a lifetime? I put “healthy eating” in quotes because different people mean different things by that term.
I am not asking whether the new Weight Weights plan is good or bad, or even whether it is healthy or not. My question goes beyond Weight Watchers. Is changing how you eat in order to eat a healthier diet necessarily so restrictive that it can’t be sustained as a permanent lifestyle? In addressing that question I use Weight Watchers’ SmartPoints as an example, but the question replies to any “healthy eating” plan.
For those who don’t follow the new SmartPoints plan, it is part of the Weight Watchers Beyond the Scale plan. Food is assigned a SmartPoints value based upon the amount of calories, sugar, saturated fat, and protein in the food. This goes beyond simple calorie counting because sugar and saturated fat increase the SmartPoints value of a food while protein decreases it.
To give an example: 150 calories of skinless turkey breast is 1 SmartPoint. 150 calories of sugary Coca Cola is 10 SmartPoints. This is important because you are assigned a certain amount of SmartPoints that you can eat each day and each week. If I get 30 daily SmartPoints to eat, I have used 1/3 of them if I have 150 calories of Coke. The result is that, while I am allowed to eat any food, the points penalty for eating something high sugar or high saturated fat heavily discourages eating very many of those foods.
Essentially, the new plan is encouraging us to eat much less sugar and saturated fat, while encouraging the eating of more lean protein. It is treating other carbs and fats in a neutral fashion. By doing this, Weight Watchers is encouraging what it sees as healthier eating.
For this post, I don’t want to focus on whether Weight Watchers is right in what it considers healthy eating (I do plan to address that in a later post). To use that plan as an example, the issue is whether limiting how much sugar and saturated fat we eat is so difficult that the attempt to do is inherently unsustainable?
Many people who are losing weight are perfectly fine with restricting how much they eat, but balk at being asked to change what they eat. Most of us who have struggled with our weight, often have had difficulty with not even wanting to have to restrict how much we eat. One reason I was overweight for so many years was that I didn’t like restricting how much I ate. Throughout that time, though, I recognized that I really wasn’t going to lose weight unless I did restrict how much I ate. I just didn’t want to do it.
Eventually, though, I recognized that if I really wanted to lose weight I needed to restrict how many calories I ate. But, I actually didn’t want to change what I ate. I wanted to eat the same types of foods, just less calories. Over time, though, I decided I wanted to eat more healthfully. Just eating fewer calories wasn’t enough. For good health, I needed to eat different foods and needed to eat less of some foods.
I have dual counted both calories and Weight Watchers points for years. And, during most of that time, if I could fit in another 150 calories in my day I was far more likely to eat a cookie than some fruit. But, slowly I changed what I was eating. I began to eat in what I thought was a healthier way, including limiting sugar.
The fact is that, regardless of what foods you consider healthy, when you decide to eat less of one type of food and more of another, you are restricting your eating somewhat. If I decide to eat less sugar and less refined carbohydrates and less saturated fat, I am restricting what I eat. Is that unsustainable? Is “healthy eating” impossible to sustain for a lifetime?
I don’t think it is. No, I don’t think most people will have much success if they are miserable with how they eat. I am mindful of what Dr. Yoni Freedhoff says in his book, The Diet Fix:
If you don’t like the life you’re living, you’re not going to keep living that way.
To put it in food terms: If you don’t like the food you’re eating, you’re not going to keep eating that way. So, no, people won’t be able to sustain a way of eating that they don’t like and that makes them miserable.
But, does healthy eating have to make us miserable? So many of the criticisms I’ve seen of SmartPoints or of clean eating or various other ways of “healthy eating”, just seem to assume that it is impossible to change what foods we like. And, they seem to assume that it is impossible to actually enjoy eating if we are limiting certain types of food. I don’t think that is true.
There was a time that I used to have a full-size Snickers bar almost every day. I used to often buy cookies and eat them. I drank brown sugar water, a/k/a Coca Cola. Or, I would buy half a dozen donuts and eat them all. Some of that was many years ago. But even a couple of years ago, if I went to Panera, I had a Cinnamon Crunch bagel. And, if someone suddenly told me I could never eat those things I would have felt incredibly deprived and restricted and would have thought I couldn’t sustain it for a lifetime.
And, yet, I changed my tastes. And, there we some foods that I liked (and still like) that I realized really weren’t good for me so I either quit eating them or limited my eating of them. I quit drinking sugary drinks over 20 years ago and I don’t miss them at all. I haven’t had a full-size Snickers bar, or other candy bar, in years. But, I do still have dark chocolate every week in a small portion and occasionally have a funsize candy bar. And, it is enough for me.
I haven’t had a donut in a few years. The Cinnamon Crunch bagel? It has been almost a year since I had one. I am sure I would enjoy one if I had it. I gave it up purely in order to eat in a healthier way. It was 11 points under the PointsPlus, and I could usually “afford” it on points. But, I found out that I am somewhat insulin resistant (although not diabetic) and that it really spikes my blood sugar. So, I don’t eat that any more. Someday, I might eat one. I don’t consider it something I absolutely must abstain from, but it isn’t my priority any more. Eating in a healthier way for me is more important to me.
Currently I usually eat between 20g and 30g of sugar a day (including natural sugar in berries and vegetables). Occasionally, I eat a little more. I have had no real problem on SmartPoints because the foods I eat have mostly not sharply risen in points. I get confused when I see some people saying that the new plan is a restrictive diet that can’t possibly be sustained. I don’t feel that this way of eating is all that restrictive and I am enjoying what I eat. Is this something that I can’t possibly sustain for the long term?
When I was a big sugar eater, I would have said I couldn’t sustain it. I would have said that I would feel deprived and would soon return to my old way of eating. I would have said, “Moderation in all things.” The problem is that I would have seen “moderation in all things” as meaning that, as long as I watched my calories, it would have been fine to have a candy bar on one day, a Cinnamon Crunch bagel on the next, 2 or 3 donuts the next day, followed by a couple of cookies. I would have considered that moderation because I was restricting my calories.
I think that some people feel that limiting sugar, for example, isn’t moderation because it is seen as being restrictive. But, moderation does not actually mean eating without restriction. Moderation is something in between abstaining entirely and eating without restriction. Moderation always involves restraint and avoiding excess. Moderation means having limits.
The thing is that some seem to feel that it is moderation (and, thus, OK) if you limit what you eat only by limiting the total calories you eat. If you limit the type of food you eat in order to eat in a more healthy way then that is “restrictive” and can’t be sustained forever.
If we see limiting certain foods (such as sugars and saturated fat) as being a restrictive diet then that seems to equate having any limits (other than calories) as all but forbidding foods in a restrictive manner. Limiting how much sugar I eat is not the same thing as abstaining from it entirely. Having a 60 calorie square of dark chocolate a couple of days a weeks is not forbidding chocolate. It is setting a limit.
With PointsPlus it was easy to fill up your points with junky food and feel like you are on program because you weren’t eating more than your points. While I think calorie counting is a great way to lose weight, the great downside of it is that it can be easy to pay attention only to calories rather than food quality and the healthfulness of the overall diet. And, that was something that some (including me, at times) did with PointsPlus as well.
With SmartPoints, no food is forbidden at any point in the program. Any food can be eaten. I can have a fullsize candy bar if I want one. But, to stay within my points and get enough food, I can’t eat one every day and I have to make choices. If I have that piece of pie on Christmas, then I’m not likely to have dark chocolate that day. And, that might have something do with why my dinner out at Chili’s last night was a 15 point dinner and why I didn’t get popcorn when I saw The Force Awakens.
At one time in my life, I would have wanted to have pie on Christmas and would have had popcorn and candy at the movie. And, I would have eaten a Triple Dipper at Chili’s. If I was working on weight loss at the time, I would have met my calorie goal by jettisoning the healthier foods in my diet, in order to eat the junkier foods that I enjoyed. But, over time, I made healthy eating more of a priority and that left fewer calories available for certain foods, including those with high sugar.
And, I am not miserable. I am happy eating the way I eat. I’m not miserable because I changed my tastes and I changed my priorities. I learned to genuinely enjoy eating in a different way. I am not saying that the Weight Watchers way of eating is for everyone. (And I know some people don’t like the new program for other reasons).
I am saying that I don’t feel that limiting certain foods in the interest of health necessarily equates to a restrictive diet that will be impossible to sustain. To say that is to basically say that it is impossible to truly change how we eat. It is say that it is impossible to change our tastes and our priorities. I have more optimism that change is possible.