The 22 million Americans addicted to drugs aren’t as “different” as they may think. Added to their ranks are nearly 150 million obese or overweight Americans who are compelled to eat in much the same way addicts are driven to get high.
Although it has taken awhile for science to catch up with human experience, we have learned that certain foods affect the brain in similar ways as drugs like cocaine and nicotine. In a study by Yale researchers, just looking at a milkshake lit up the same areas of the brain that become hyperactive when an addict sees cocaine.
Vicarious Learning from an Unexpected Source
Losing weight isn’t easy; the stats on overcoming addiction are downright depressing. But both are possible, and in some surprisingly similar ways.
Since its inception more than 40 years ago, Weight Watchers has helped millions of people achieve their weight loss goals. This year, Weight Watchers earned the distinction of Easiest Diet Plan by U.S. News & World Report.
To what does Weight Watchers owe this acclaim? And how can others learn from it? Here are five recovery lessons addicts can glean from Weight Watchers’ four decades of success:
1. One Size Does Not Fit All
One of the secrets to Weight Watchers’ success is flexibility. Rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all program on all of its participants, Weight Watchers encourages people to make food and exercise choices that fit their lifestyle and preferences.
Similarly, addiction recovery programs must be adapted to each individual’s specific needs and goals. For some, recovery may require ongoing 12-Step meetings and therapy. For others, stress management techniques like yoga, acupuncture and massage are the key to preventing relapse. Success in recovery is based on a willingness to try different approaches and find what works for each individual.
2. Know Your Enemy
One of Weight Watchers’ “Four Pillars of a Science-Based Approach” relates to informed choices. More than telling people what to do to lose weight, the program also provides an understanding of how food affects the brain and body.
Likewise, an essential component of drug rehabilitation programs is psychoeducation. Once addicts understand that addiction is a chronic brain disease, they are better able to overcome the shame and stigma associated with their illness and develop the coping strategies that promote lifelong recovery.
3. Progress Is Only as Good as its Sustainability
Perhaps the most important feature of Weight Watchers is that it isn’t a diet. Weight loss is what draws people to the program, but what keeps them singing its praises is its emphasis on long-term lifestyle change. As important as the weight loss itself is the development of a new relationship with food – one that doesn’t involve using food to cope with feelings. Every aspect of the program, from the food to the fitness plan, is sustainable in the real world.
The holistic approach is also effective for treating drug addiction. Addicts go to rehab to stop using drugs, but what keeps them clean and sober is addressing the underlying issues that led them to abuse drugs in the first place. If cutting out drugs was the only goal, detox would be the end of the story. The most important work of recovery happens after detox, when addicts learn how to identify their triggers for use, relieve stress in healthy ways and manage any co-occurring mental health issues.
4. Your Peers Are Your Greatest Allies
Weight Watchers was founded on the concept of group support. Recognizing that long-term behavioral change is never easy, the program encourages members to look to their peers for positive reinforcement. Participants attend weekly self-help style meetings that are led by someone who has lost weight on the Weight Watchers plan. They also have access to encouragement and tips from thousands of people with similar goals via Internet forums.
Addicts have been hip to the wisdom of peer fellowship since the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, yet many resist making ongoing group therapy or regular 12-Step meetings part of their recovery program. Numerous studies published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research have linked 12-Step meeting attendance with long-term abstinence and lower relapse rates. Meetings are free, available in most communities worldwide, and open to a variety of distinct groups, including alcoholics, cocaine addicts, heroin addicts and many others.
5. Follow the Steps
No one loses 10 pounds overnight (unless you’re doing one of those freaky body cleanses). Recognizing that the loftiest goals are best broken down into digestible pieces, Weight Watchers encourages members to make slow, steady progress toward their weight loss goals. Participants may set out to lose 5 percent of their body weight and then set a new target once the first milestone has been achieved.
In drug rehab, we ask addicts to achieve one daunting goal right up front: Stop using drugs. But the long-term process of recovery is broken down into manageable stages, also known as the 12 Steps. AA’s approach to recovery has been around for more than 75 years and continues to be one of the most effective treatments for addiction. One of the largest studies of its kind, Project MATCH, found that 12-Step treatment was as effective as two other widely used approaches, cognitive-behavioral therapy and motivational enhancement therapy.
There are no simple solutions for problems as complex as overeating and drug addiction. But as Lynn Redgrave, Jenny McCarthy, Sarah Ferguson and Jennifer Hudson can attest, Weight Watchers is onto something. For the addict, there’s certainly no harm in embracing a few lessons from the leader in the diet wars. Many of the principles are tried and true – and just think, you may even lose some weight in the process.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. A sought-after media expert, Dr. Sack has appeared on Dateline NBC, Good Morning America, The Early Show, E! News, The Doctors, and many other outlets. He has also been interviewed and quoted by the major print media, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and Time Magazine.