At a special weight loss program for men, the author discovers that the only way to stop overeating is to start believing
Clients of Harvey Brooker Weight Loss for Men, and, wearing a white shirt and red tie, Brooker himself.
December 10, 2009.
Glancing over my doctor’s shoulder one day some years ago, I was horrified to see that she had written the word “obesity” on my chart. Obese? Me? Admittedly, I weighed two or three dozen pounds more than any doctor would countenance. I was buying my clothes from George Richards Big and Tall Menswear, a chain where the staff appears to have been chosen by gross poundage, to avoid any embarrassment a customer might feel when faced with a thinner salesman. But until that moment in the doctor’s office, my self-image had taken shelter under the relatively friendly term “heavy,” which implies normality, even inevitability. And in some corner of my mind, weight was a problem I sincerely intended to fix—eventually.
The sight of the word “obesity” awakened me. This needed serious attention. Something had to change! Going home from the doctor’s office, I felt the peculiar adrenalin that accompanies a fresh sense of virtue.
The years that followed brought a grim consultation with a dietitian, a period when I weighed in at the doctor’s office once a week, a brief era of Metrecal cookies (nutrition to compensate for the ordinary food I was, theoretically, avoiding), and two short-lived memberships in Weight Watchers. There were also many, many private resolutions, each combining the elimination of fattening foods with daily use of the treadmill.
All of these were successful, in the special meaning of a friend who summed up her lifetime of weight loss frustration in four words: “Every diet works once.” Like her, I took off weight every time I tried. And, like her, I soon grew back to my pre-diet self, invariably adding a few more pounds. With each setback, I became less optimistic about losing weight. Still, I pretended to the world that I saw nothing wrong. In the ’80s, I complained to the director of my TV show that on a certain occasion her way of shooting me made me look fat. She paused, looked at me evenly, and said, “There is a solution, you know.” I changed the subject.
At the end of 2007, I weighed 250 pounds, fifty more than someone just under six feet tall should carry. By then, like everyone else, I knew that being fat made me part of an international problem in public policy, a threat to the health care system as well as to myself. Bad news about “the obesity epidemic” was now regularly appearing across North America and Europe. The average weight of people in industrialized countries sharply increased in the ’80s and, despite much public alarm, continues to rise. I took no comfort in the knowledge that my careless gluttony was so widely shared. The sober commentaries from specialists reminded me of my own persistent failures and left me with a nagging question: Why had I allowed this to persist so long when any damn fool, including me, knew the remedy? Was I missing something?
During an unusually remorseful period, I happened to hear Shelagh Rogers on CBC Radio interviewing Harvey Brooker, a Toronto weight loss professional. He sounded wonderfully confident as he described the program he was running, yet he clearly understood that the task of becoming thin is hard for many of us, the task of staying thin monumental. A lifetime of failure had left me highly skeptical about anyone claiming to have solutions, but Brooker’s manner revived my dormant desire to change. Was I up for one more try? I signed on and began attending meetings at Harvey Brooker Weight Loss for Men. Over the next seven months, I lost fifty pounds, one-fifth of me, a fraction that felt like a miracle. Given my history and the common experience of others, it’s far more miraculous that today, after another eighteen months, my weight remains the same and shows no signs of increasing. But the largest surprise is that in this process I changed certain long-held ideas about the kind of help I needed.
Harvey Brooker meets his clients every Sunday morning on the second floor of a Dufferin Street strip mall, just south of Finch Avenue in Toronto. Its only neighbour at that hour is a cheerful kindergarten down the hall that serves the children of Russian immigrants living nearby. In the reception area, where a display of before and after photographs provides encouragement, members check in with the volunteers who staff the desk and with Harvey’s wife, Helen, before facing the moment of truth: the weigh-in. “How are you? ” the man who reads the scales will sometimes ask. And I answer, “You’ll be the judge of that.”
About 150 men gather before the meeting to sip coffee and munch on apples provided for the occasion. I remember thinking during my first Sunday that it might be hard to find anywhere else such a rich variety of human shapes. Someone weighing at least 400 pounds chats with someone weighing about 175; the first man may be there because of dire warnings from his doctor, the second because he’s been unable to lose a stubborn paunch. A democratic spirit that springs up every week makes us take both of them seriously. We are all equal in the Fellowship of the Fat. We all have a secret we’ve tried to keep from our friends and family: that our bodies make us uncomfortable and we’re anxious to change them.
Just attending the program is an admission of sorts, but we also openly discuss our shared secret. The meeting begins with a personal statement that often has a confessional air. One recent speaker said he had been so depressed by various events in his life that he had grown to 300 pounds. At one point, he realized that chronic weight gain was a socially acceptable form of suicide: “I was trying to kill myself a pound at a time.”
Brooker, who’s been standing at the back listening, can sympathize with almost anything he hears. He, too, was fat. In his twenties, at five feet six, he weighed 215 pounds; a shirtless photo of him from those days, apparently chosen to emphasize his obesity, hangs in the auditorium and appears in a booklet about the program. During a period of self-examination, he determined to take off the extra weight (“It made me unhappy with myself”) and managed to do so. Today, at age sixty-six, he weighs within a pound or two of 155, about the same as in his thirties.
After years spent running weight loss programs for both sexes, in 1985 Brooker began his unique class for men. He’d come to realize that men and women approach the problem of weight in strikingly different ways, almost like two species. Men aren’t socialized to think about it, as many women are. Since men typically cook far less than women, we are less equipped to analyze the content of what we eat. We don’t often read food labels, and many of us wrongly believe we can work off the pounds through exercise alone. Above all, our culture genially forgives fatness in men, as it does not in women. Men’s magazines provide plenty of advice on muscle development but show little interest in weight. Brooker makes that point in a book he wrote two years ago, It’s Different for Men: “Would Outdoor Life suggest a program to lose ten pounds in two weeks? ”
One day, when the class discussed the value of an all-male program, enthusiastic nods of agreement endorsed a member’s opinion that men are embarrassed to speak about their weight with women present. Men feel it’s not an altogether appropriate subject for male conversation. Brooker has overcome this barrier by creating a place where we can feel comfortable discussing our problems with food.
But the program’s demands presented me with another hurdle. As Brooker says, newcomers often attend their first meetings with arms crossed, as if daring him to overcome their misgivings. My problem wasn’t any lack of confidence in him; I didn’t trust me. As he explained his system that first day, it became clear that he was asking me to do something I had never done before: commit myself to a process he had designed. “I have the answer,” he’ll say. “Leave your ego at the door. Give in.” I would need to be far more attentive than I had expected. I would have to take his advice and his rules seriously. Against all my instincts, I would have to do as I was told.
Beyond the fundamentals of sensible eating, Brooker teaches the intimate art of self-command, what Samuel Johnson called “the government of the passions.” There are many enviable people who possess an automatic governor on their appetites and live long lives without ever worrying about their weight. But the rest of us suffer from an inborn failure of judgment: we don’t know when to stop. It can be traced back millions of years, to a time when our ancestors stayed alive only if they stored fat in their bodies when it was available. In evolutionary terms, as Elizabeth Kolbert summarized in a New Yorker piece, “A person with a genetic knack for storing fat would have had a competitive advantage.” Gluttony, far from being self-destructive, was a key to survival. Enthusiastic eaters became our ancestors, whereas naturally dainty eaters grew thin when the food ran out and often didn’t live long enough to pass on their genes. The survivors, notes Kolbert, are responsible for one of the most depressing results reported by diet researchers: when enormous amounts of food are served to people taking part in experiments, many will eat far more than they require to satisfy any conceivable need.
In recent decades, the food industry has done everything possible to turn this habit into its own competitive advantage. Food engineers, putting their ingenuity to work in labs and test kitchens, use sugar, fat, and salt in increasingly imaginative ways, devising cheap, easily digested forms of food that are so attractive they become addictive—so-called eatertainment. A minor item being promoted at the supermarket checkout—Kolbert’s example is Nacho Cheese Doritos—represents the refined wisdom of chemists whose goal is to make us so happy with what we are putting in our mouths that we will want to repeat the process soon. David A. Kessler, a sharp and pessimistic critic of the food industry, invented the term “conditioned hypereating” to describe the goal of corporate food scientists. As good capitalists, they know that expansion is essential to the health of a corporation. Cleverly, they expand their market by expanding the size of their customers.
To counteract the effects of these two converging tendencies, prehistoric and modern, Brooker preaches “chronic restrained eating.” A typical piece of advice deals with hunger. If we eat properly, we should never be hungry. We are told, for example, to take hunger into account when we plan social engagements. I hadn’t heard that sensible rule before; now I never break it. If I go hungry to a dinner party, I know I’m in danger of eating every morsel offered to me on the hostess’s little silver dishes. But if I have some relatively harmless snack at home (celery, an apple, a banana, a half-litre or so of water), I’ll have circled around the end of my hunger and disarmed it. I’ll remember my good intentions and ignore any persistent traces of hunger.
Brooker views most highway restaurants with suspicion and exhibits a special hatred for all-you-can-eat buffets, which he never fails to call “the trough.” His eating plan allows for no more than a moderate amount of alcohol. He devotes more time and passion to what he calls “novelties,” his term for anything that’s entertaining rather than nutritious. He regularly issues warnings against pizza and anything fried. I never knew, till Brooker told me, that if I ignored some favourite but harmful food for a few months I would lose the desire to eat it. That includes steak frites, which I treated as a staple food for many years. Now, to my surprise, I don’t crave it or even notice when a friend orders it for lunch.
While we often discuss what we can and cannot eat, well-schooled Brooker students carefully avoid the word “diet.” A diet is something people “go on” and then, in time, “go off,” frequently with disheartening results. It’s a promise with a self-cancelling clause. As Brooker sees it, we avoid dieting and instead (all going well) permanently change our way of eating—and, not incidentally, change our lives. But we all hold in our minds a negative, destructive force. Brooker calls that impulse Slick, as if it were an old-time con man. Slick is the voice in your head that says, go ahead, just have one, it can’t do any harm, you’ve done well on your diet, you deserve a treat, everybody else is having cake, relax. No, says Brooker, on the question of food you don’t relax. And you should never celebrate your triumph on the scales by returning to the ways that once made such a triumph impossible.
The twenty-seven stairs we climb to reach our meeting room have acquired a legendary status and become part of Brooker’s teaching. I’ve heard a dozen men say how hard they found it to haul their 300 pounds upstairs, as compared to how easy it is now that they are, say, 120 pounds lighter. “You would not have walked up the stairs if you weren’t in pain,” Brooker says. Those who found that staircase difficult must never forget their feelings. To stay thin, we should always remember how much we disliked being fat. We can lose the weight we want to lose, and we should be happy about it, but we should never imagine we are truly, safely, finally thin: “There is a fat man inside you who wants to get out.”
That first Sunday, I decided that what Brooker offered was worth at least the $1,875 he charged for a one-year membership. Like everyone else, I set my goal weight upon joining, 200 pounds in my case. Once I achieved that number, I could attend permanently without further payment; I’d be asked to pay again only if my weight rose five pounds and I wanted to remain in the program. Nowadays, I’m among a few dozen non-paying members who come every Sunday, keeping in touch with our old comrades and, above all, with ourselves and our weight. I’m usually sitting beside my son, who followed me into the program in 2008 and is at least as enthusiastic as I am, having lost more than ninety pounds.
Of course, Brooker has also had some failures, men who dropped out because they found themselves unable to go along with the program. Whenever he mentions them, which he does frequently, I’m moved to consider my own success and what seemed likely, in the beginning, to get in my way: Brooker’s theories.
He’s a motivational speaker, one of many who offer to help people realize their better selves. At the start of every meeting, he’s introduced by one of the members as “our leader” or “our guide.” He delivers his advice with the passionate vehemence of an evangelical preacher. The word “brainwashing” has been spoken now and then in the meetings. He announces his allegiance to the tradition of motivational speaking with a sign on the wall bearing a quote attributed to William James, the American psychologist and pragmatic philosopher, brother of the novelist Henry James: “The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind.”
A Google search generates almost 500,000 references to that passage, and with good reason. Any believer in democracy quickens to the idea that we need not be limited by our genes, social class, family, or education; we can change our destiny if we will it. Ninety years ago, a multitude of North Americans were also attracted to the theories of émile Coué, a French pharmacist inspired by the placebo effect. He invented Couéism, which involved saying, morning and evening, the mantra “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” It may sound absurd, but millions reported that it helped them.
Generations of motivators have appeared since, among them Norman Vincent Peale, the author of The Power of Positive Thinking; and Wayne Dyer, whose books include Your Erroneous Zones and Real Magic: Creating Miracles in Everyday Life. Brooker speaks well of both Peale and Dyer. He especially admires The Magic of Believing, by Claude M. Bristol, which explains “How you become what you contemplate” and “How to turn your thoughts into achievements.”
Brooker is a kind of connoisseur of motivation. He knows most of the key books, he’s heard many of the speakers, and he’s based his own presentation on what he learned from those writers, supported by his own experience. “Don’t call this a weight loss project,” he said one Sunday morning, perhaps startling a few new members who hadn’t absorbed his philosophy and believed it was merely a weight loss program. “It’s a change in thinking, a project that will lead to a new way of life.” Like the authors of the slogans on his walls, he believes we become what we think about. “Believe it can be done, visualize what you want, and you’ll turn into what you want to be.” And on another occasion: “Act as if you are already the person you want to be. This is not a dress rehearsal. Accept that this is a change for life.”
Eventually, we grasp his point: permanently losing weight will involve an alteration in our self-image. Listening to him, trying on my new suit, planning to outsmart my hunger, I realize that in two years as a student of Brooker I’ve reconsidered my rather skeptical views of the school of optimism from which he emerged. I’ve also discovered that I have more willpower than I had guessed, but only if it becomes the object of close attention. It needs to be meticulously nourished and vigorously encouraged.
If the truths exchanged through motivational training have worked for me and many others, it seems possible that the same tradition can provide a solution to mass obesity. Perhaps multitudes of fat people would grow thinner if they embraced the same fanatically careful eating Brooker teaches. They would also probably need the same kind of dedicated inspiration he provides. There are, after all, armies of marketers trying to convince us to consume more. To oppose them, we will need far more willpower than most of us now deploy.
Certainly, I needed help. The first day I entered his meeting room, I read a sign that said, “If you could do it alone, you would have done it already.” These days, when my eye falls on that sign, I occasionally think, why didn’t anyone tell me that forty years ago? But of course they were telling me, in various ways. I just wasn’t listening.