David Kirchhoff, CEO of Weight Watchers International, isn't just an employee -- he's a client too. The 45-year-old executive has been writing a blog, Man Meets Scale, ever since he achieved his goal weight three-and-a-half years ago, posts that were recently turned into a book, "Weight Loss Boss." He sat down with The Huffington Post Canada to share his thoughts on how to keep off the weight, the importance of routines and ensuring his teenage daughters are healthy.
The Huffington Post Canada: How would you describe your philosophy towards weight?
David Kirchhoff: It starts with the fact that obesity is a significant health condition. So if you’re talking about body mass index of 30 or greater, you’re talking about greatly elevated risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer. In literally any country, they’re all seeing the same thing. Right now our healthcare systems are wired to take care of people who are sick, not to prevent people from becoming sick. So we’ll wait until you become diabetic, and then we’ll spend thousands a year treating you, as opposed to saying, ‘You’re pre-diabetic, we should catch it now,’ or even better, preventing it in the first place.
And so I tend to think of weight issues as starting from that place. I don’t think about it in terms of turning people into bikini models, because really for most people that’s not going to be what happens. It’s much more about getting people to medically significant weight loss that they can sustain.
THPC: Did you have any personal reasons for starting to care?
DK: I really didn’t know what I was getting involved in when I joined the company on the Internet side back in 2000. I had a BMI of 30, so I was obese, and I had a cholesterol level of 260. And I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be a nice perk if I could finally deal with this issue?’
THPC: So what did you start doing?
DK: I started in 2000, tracking points and doing those types of things. When I started writing Man Made Scale in 2009, I had just gotten to goal weight, so I was on what they call maintenance. So I basically spent three-and-a-half years writing on what it’s like to keep the weight off, as opposed to what it’s like to lose the weight. And to me that’s kind of the whole point -- anybody can lose weight, but the hard part is keeping it off. And to keep it off, it became for me a process of establishing routines and habits.
SEE: David Kirchhoff's 11 ways to keep your goals working. Interview continues below:
When you're sleep-deprived, your frontal lobe (which controls impulsive behaviour) doesn't function as well, so your guard is down. So things that you might have been able to resist, you can't really resist.
"I don't think about [weight] in terms of turning people into bikini models, because really for most people that's not going to be what happens. It's much more about getting people to medically significant weight loss that they can sustain. If you're obese and you reduce your weight by 10 per cent, it reduces your risk of Type 2 diabetes by 60 per cent. A relatively modest amount of weight loss can have a huge impact on your health, how you feel and yes, how you look."
"I usually have the same breakfast, and it's regular oatmeal with fruit and a non-fat Greek yogurt. It's a lot of food, it keeps me full, I think it tastes good, I'm happy having it, and I'm not making a decision. I just have the same thing every single day. What I now believe is that it's really the only way to keep it off, to get these types of little routines and habits established so that you don't have to make decisions anymore." - David Kirchhoff, CEO Weight Watchers International
"There's only so much we can do about the food environment. But the one thing we can do is change our personal environment. We can reengineer our kitchens, and make it basically safer places to exist by taking trigger foods, taking them out of sight, giving better visibility to healthier foods, making sure the kitchen's stocked with stuff that, if you're going to need to nosh at 9 p.m., don't deprive yourself of it, eat something healthy. Eat an apple, as opposed to having a bag of 100-calorie cookies."
In meetings in London a few weeks ago, Kirchhoff saw a big bowl of Weight Watchers treats, and despite not being hungry, eventually gave in and ate one. What does he wish he'd done? "I could have just said, 'you know what guys? Do you mind if I actually just put that over on the side table over there so I don't have to see it?'"
"We have a tendency to think of habits and routines as kind of obsessive compulsive, or boring -- but they're not. Because there's other things in life where we can still be as spontaneous as we need to be, but do we really need to have a really super exciting breakfast every day where it's just a great big surprise what we're going to have for breakfast? No."
"If you're keeping a food diary and there's a currency associated with the food, it's allowing you to distinguish between smart choices and not-so-smart choices, as well as forcing you to think about portion size."
It took Kirchhoff nine years to get to his goal weight because, by his own admission, he wasn't committed. "I was in kind of a dieting mentality where I'd be super hardcore for a couple of months, but I was never really thinking about fundamentally saying, 'This eating fruits and vegetables? It's not for these next two months, it's really for the next 20 years.' Which is one of the reasons why I give the advice, whatever you're doing while you're losing weight should be something that you can see yourself doing for the rest of your life.'"
"For someone who is already trying to make healthier choices, equipping them with information helps them facilitate it ... Because I'm constantly trying to make good decisions, when I see a lemon pound cake is 500 calories, I think, this is bullshit, I'm not spending 500 calories on that. It's like money. The question is like, 'wouldn't it be better if there wasn't pricing on products in the grocery store?' I want to be aware of where I'm spending money, and I want to be aware of where I'm spending calories. I want foods that are a good bargain, and I think frankly, people who are generally making the effort will feel the same way, so it's always going to be helpful to be able to rely on."
"Music is a big thing for me when I'm working out, so that's something to look forward to," Kirchhoff says. He cites AC/DC, Guns 'N Roses and Aerosmith as bands that push him when he's not feeling quite as energetic, and REO Speedwagon and the Bee Gees for his 'Big Ball of Cheese' mix.
"I really try to be mindful of what I talk about around [my teenage daughters], because I want them to be balanced and normal. But they are much more normal, not-compulsive eaters than I am ... I think it's good that they see me being healthy, I think it wouldn't be good if I sat around and talked about my weight all the time."
THPC: What kind of routines and habits? What would you do?
DK: Here’s a great one: exercise. I’ve gotten to a point now that I’m good for six to seven days a week of exercise. Every night before bed, I take out my gym clothes, I put out a sugar-free Red Bull -- I know I’m not supposed to have energy drinks, but I do, sue me. It’s all set up next to the computer in my office and when the alarm goes off at 5 a.m., all I have to do is get out of bed. I check email, I go to the gym. Music is a big thing for me when I’m working out, so that’s something to look forward to. But, it’s on auto-pilot. I’m not making a decision.
What I now believe is that it’s really the only way to keep it off, to get these types of little routines and habits established so that you don’t have to make decisions anymore. This notion of keeping weight off through sheer force of will is just terrible, because nobody can do it, and when we fail to do it, we beat ourselves up and it puts us in this horrible doom loop.
THPC: So what can we do to combat that?
DK: We live in this world where we’re surrounded by so much food -- a lot of junk food, a lot of processed food. There’s only so much we can do about the food environment. But the one thing we can do is change our personal environment. We can reengineer our kitchens, and make them safer places to exist by taking trigger foods out of sight, giving better visibility to healthier foods, making sure the kitchen’s stocked with stuff that, if you’re going to need to nosh at 9 p.m., there's something healthy to eat.
THPC: Do you not miss the indulgences?
DK: I sometimes think about them, but it’s such a funny thing -- if ice cream was right in front of me here, I would be looking at it every three minutes, and thinking about it, and having difficulty concentrating talking to you. But if it’s not in front of me, it’s out of my mind. So I tend not to obsess about food that I can’t see.
And that’s what it’s like for most people. There’s a great statistic that came out of a research group at Cornell University: The average person makes 200 food decisions every day, but they’re only aware of about 10 to 15 of them. Here’s a classic example. A few weeks ago I’m in London. And we’re having endless meetings, and our British team wanted to be good hosts, so they put these big bowls of Weight Watchers bars in the centre of the conference table. Yes, they’re better for you. But I’m jet-lagged, sleep deprived, and what I find myself doing is every five minutes, I’m looking at the food. And then I’m making a decision, ‘I don’t want it, I’m not hungry, I just want to eat it because it’s in front of me.’
And I was just having this constant dialogue, and eventually I break. They call it decision fatigue. It’s sort of like why interrogation works. As opposed to the smarter thing for me to do, which, I could have just said, ‘You know what guys? Do you mind if I actually just put that over on the side table over there so I don’t have to see it?’
THPC: Do you ever worry that people are going to think you’re a bit, well, nuts for doing things like that?
DK: The thing is, if obesity is a health condition and we’re taking care of ourselves, then to me, that’s not crazy. If we think of food as this diet obsession-y thing, then yes, that’s very crazy.
But it’s a big distinction. There was a really good article that came out of the New York Times by Tara Parker Pope called 'The Fat Trap,' and it was about the difficulty of keeping weight off. She talked about people who had maintained their weight loss for a long period of time, a research group called the National Weight Control Registry, and they’re very regimented this way. And then there was a response article in Slate where they said, ‘This is crazy, they’re being so obsessive’ and Tara came back and said, ‘I think you’re missing the point. If somebody has cancer and they actually are going through a process to take care of themselves and actually putting in an effort to be healthier, we would all clap for them. But if somebody’s obese and they’re doing the same thing, we criticize them and say they’re being unhealthy and obsessive about food.’ But what’s the alternative, becoming diabetic? Because that’s kind of what it’s gotten to.
THPC: What is your workout?
DK: I do what’s called a four-day split - four day of weights. Day one will be legs and abs. Day two would be back and biceps. Day three would be chest and triceps. Day four would be shoulders and abs again. Usually three sets per exercise, probably a total of 10 to 12 exercises. So it’s about an hour. And then three to four days a week I’ll do cardio, which is always something that has a pedal attached to it, so it’s a stationary bike, it’s a spinning class, or it’s getting on my bike.
THPC: Are you someone who’s oriented toward routines generally?
DK: I think now, much more than I used to be. If you saw me in college, you would do what a lot of people did, which was look at me like kind of a spastic buffoon.
With the amount of travel I do and crazy hours and unpredictability, I found that my routines help me provide a little bit of sanity in a life that sometimes feels like it’s a little bit out of control. We have a tendency to think of habits and routines as kind of obsessive compulsive, or boring -- but they’re not. Because there’s other things in life where we can still be as spontaneous as we need to be, but do we really need to have a really super exciting breakfast every day where it’s just a great big surprise what we’re going to have for breakfast? No.
THPC: Do you use the point system?
DK: Now, no. When I first started losing weight? Yes, all the time. When I feel like I’m going off track? Yes. The point to me is not counting points. There’s tons of clinical research out there that shows that keeping a food diary makes you more aware of what you’re actually doing, so it makes you much more mindful. If you’re keeping a food diary and there’s also a currency associated with the food, it’s allowing you to distinguish between smart choices and not-so-smart choices, as well as forcing you to think about portion size.
THPC: How long did it take you to get to your goal weight?
DK: Nine years - isn’t that sad? I lost weight in the beginning, and it would come down, and then it would start drifting back up, and then it would go down, and I would never quite get to goal, because frankly I wasn’t all in. I was in kind of a dieting mentality where I’d be super hardcore for a couple of months, but I was never really fundamentally saying, ‘This eating fruits and vegetables? It’s not for these next two months, it’s really for the next 20 years.’ Which is one of the reasons why I give the advice, 'Whatever you’re doing while you’re losing weight should be something that you can see yourself doing for the rest of your life.’ Otherwise, it’s not going to work.
DK: People have a tendency to look at something in isolation and saying ‘that thing by itself will make obesity go away.’ But obesity is a big complicated systematic problem with multiple components that causes us to overeat, and it’s not surprising that it’s going to be a systematic approach that allows us to deal with it.
So labelling on menu boards, for someone who is already trying to make healthier choices, equipping them with information helps them facilitate it.
THPC: In New York, chain restaurant are now required to show calories on their products, right?
DK: Isn’t it great and scary, all at the same time?
THPC: It is, but wouldn’t people eventually come to a point where they just don’t notice it anymore?
DK: No, not if you are already aware. Because I’m constantly trying to make good decisions, when I see a lemon pound cake is 500 calories, I think, this is bullshit, I’m not spending 500 calories on that. It’s like … price. So the question about calories on products to me is like, wouldn’t it be better if there wasn’t pricing on products in the grocery store? Because I want to be aware of where I’m spending money, and I want to be aware of where I’m spending calories.
THPC: I know you're involved in a sleep study with Harvard. How do sleep and weight work together?
DK: There’s a pretty direct line between sleep and obesity. A lot of interesting research around obesity is understanding our neural pathways for why we overeat. There’s the traditional way people look at it, which is the blood sugar and insulin and glucose and what they call the homeostatic eating system, which is your body’s internal thermostat which tells you when you’re hungry or when you’re not.
But now they’re looking at the fact that there’s other parts of the brain that get activated around food. It’s called the non-homeostatic eating system, which gets into people seeking reward. So you get the dopamine release when you indulge. But you also have your frontal lobe, which is the part of your brain that actually controls impulsive behaviour. What they’re now discovering with sleep is that when you’re sleep-deprived, your frontal lobe basically doesn’t function as well, so your guard is down.
What else has that effect? Drinking. So a couple of glasses of wine and all hell breaks loose. We always joke, 'Friends don’t let friends eat drunk.'
THPC: How much sleep do you aim for a night?
DK: Do I aim for a night, or do I get? I think my body likes seven hours, I can run on six hours - and I’m most likely to get six to six-and-a-half. When I start dipping into four or five, I’m much more of a train wreck.
THPC: What do you teach your daughters [who are 12 and 14] about all of this?
DK: I’m careful. I really try to be mindful of what I talk about around them, because I want them to be balanced and normal, because I worry about that. But they are balanced and normal. They are much more normal, not-compulsive eaters than I am. I mean, they love their candy, but they’ll have like two pieces and they’re good. They’re kind of irritating that way.
But it is something I’m mindful of, trying to make sure when I’m around them not being obsessive. I think it’s good that they see me being healthy, I think it wouldn’t be good if I sat around and talked about my weight all the time.
This interview has been modified for clarity and length.