I’m good at losing weight; always have been. I was 16 years old the first time I went on a proper diet – using my mum’s Weight Watchers books, I dutifully counted out my protein, fat and carbohydrate portions each day, ticking off the boxes on her little tracking cards, and single-mindedly shying away from crisps and chocolate for several months. The pounds dropped off me, but I have vivid memories of feeling hugely resentful that I couldn’t indulge in my usual cakes and treats for Shabbat. Predictably, as soon as I reached my goal weight I breathed a sigh of relief and went back to eating ‘normally’ again, with all the predictable consequences that came along as part of the package.
Over the ensuing 2 decades I embarked on numerous other diet plans, from a short lived experiment with some hideous meal replacement cookies, to every version of Weight Watchers known to man. I always lost the weight – like I said I’m good at it – but I invariably put it straight back on again almost as soon as I reached my goal (or got fed up, whichever came first).
By the time my youngest child was 18 months old I was at my heaviest weight ever; just under 220lb or around 95kg. I was perpetually exhausted, felt dizzy and light-headed a lot of the time, had borderline high blood pressure and my knees ached whenever I walked up or down the stairs. Oh and I was only 36 – did I mention that? Clothes shopping, once a favourite activity, depressed me, and I was squeezed into junky elasticated size 18 skirts because I refused to admit I needed a bigger size.
I remember telling my mother when she cautiously expressed concern that I’d rather be fat and happy than skinny and miserable. (Its almost as if it never occurred to me that I could slim and happy too). I remember saying that when I was dead no-one would remember what size I’d been. True enough – but even then, the little voice in my head was worriedly querying whether my size might not be hastening that day… I ignored it. I spent a lot of time eyeballing other women, wondering if I looked fatter than them, less attractive than them…when I went out with my friends I told myself I didn’t mind being ‘the fat one’. So far so cliched… But cliches win that accolade for a reason. More often than not, they’re true.
The turning point came during a routine visit to my GP in May 2011. My blood pressure was creeping up – again – and I wasn’t feeling well. When she gently suggested that I really needed to lose some weight, the tears threatened to fall. I was overwhelmed, I explained, with the demands of a full time job, toddler who still didn’t sleep that well, and 3 older kids, a husband and a house to take care of. I was holding it together – but if I had to start denying myself my occasional little treats (read large, very regular treats), I wasn’t sure if I’d cope. Ironically, it was her acceptance and understanding that ultimately triggered me into action. We humans are so contrary! She told me not to worry about it, just to try and maintain my weight for now as a form of damage control. I felt validated. I didn’t have to do it…. but now that i didn’t have to, maybe i could…?Less than 48 hours later I was signing up to Weight Watchers online, going back for another round.
I’ll gloss over the ins and outs of the Weight Watchers plan , this isn’t the right forum. Suffice it to say that within a few days I knew deep within me that this time things were going to be different. I’d finally come to the understanding that a ‘diet’ is, as they say, for life and not just for Christmas. I totally changed the way I ate, becoming one of those highly irritating people who genuinely get excited by fruit and complains that chips taste too oily. But at the same time, I didn’t feel pressured or have a date in my mind for when I needed to be ‘thin’; that made me more relaxed; I followed my new plan religiously but I didn’t try to be better than the experts. The plan gave me wiggle room to continue eating the foods I enjoyed, within reason, so I ate them: a packet of crisps every day, 3 slices of cake and a bowl of chocolate raisins, plus my home-baked challah every Shabbat.
Almost as importantly, I learned to accept the fact that the scales don’t always show the true picture. I always stuck to the plan, but sometimes my weight would inexplicably stall or even creep up a bit – I turned the other cheek and carried on as before. My clothes got loser, my bones reappeared in all kinds of funny places I hadn’t even thought about, my energy levels shot up and my blood pressure fell back to normal. By the time my Weight Watchers anniversary came around I was 75lb lighter, and I’d venture to say it, a completely changed person.
Losing weight doesn’t only change the way you look. It gives you the space and confidence to become the person you always wished you could be but didn’t even contemplate attempting. I wanted to bottle the feeling and share it around exuberantly – if my family wouldn’t have disowned me, I’d have happily marched up and down Golders Green Road wearing a sandwich board saying ‘Want to lose weight? Ask me how’! Instead, I went for the closest equivalent and put in an application to become a Weight Watchers leader. For me, it wasn’t a straightforward process. The bulk of Weight Watchers leader training takes place in a weekend workshop, over Shabbat. But all credit to the organisation; they recognised the importance of training leaders who understand the communities they work in, and in October 2012, they stepped out of the box and ran a mid-week workshop so I could attend.
I’ve been a Weight Watchers leader for a year now and have maintained my new weight for 18 months; I can’t imagine ever going back to the way things were, but I’m not complacent. I still follow the Weight Watchers plan every day; the beauty of it is that I genuinely do eat like a ‘normal’ person now. In fact I probably eat more than all my work colleagues put together; I still love eating, it’s just that the foods I choose to eat are different now.
Being a leader is hugely rewarding; I see my members struggling with the same concepts I struggled with for so many years and it’s a huge privilege to be able to support them on their journeys. To the best of my knowledge, I’m the only ‘frum’ (strictly Orthodox) leader in the UK at the moment, and I know I’m uniquely placed to help my members overcome the challenges of Shabbat, yom tov, and limited availability of healthy kosher convenience foods .
When I look back at the old me I feel sad that I wasted so many years carrying around not only the extra weight, but the emotional baggage that came along with it. I can’t change that. But I can use the benefit of my experience to help others in a similar boat. The bottom line: you can be slim and happy. It’s true that after 120 years no-one will remember whether you were fat or thin. But the scope of your accomplishments as a physically and emotionally healthy person will be so much greater than the alternative. And there’s no better feeling I can tell you.