Q&A: Weight Watchers CEO Describes His Path to ‘Weight Loss Boss’

Weight Watchers International CEO David Kirchhoff hasn't always been as slim and trim as he is today. Would you believe he packed on 45 lbs. during his freshman year at Duke University?

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As you might guess, David Kirchhoff knows a thing or two about weight control. After all, he’s the CEO of Weight Watchers International (WW), the biggest weight-loss program in the world. More than 1 million people in some 25 countries attend WW meetings each week, and 2 million participate online.

But what you might not expect is that the 6-ft.-3-in., 200-lb. Kirchhoff  has struggled with his own weight for years. In his inspiring new book, Weight Loss Boss, WW’s charismatic leader tells his own story and offers myriad tips for weight-challenged readers. We caught up with Kirchhoff, 45, shortly after his daily workout.

Healthland: In your book, you are remarkably honest about your own weight challenges. Was it difficult to be so open?
Kirchhoff: At first, it was. When I first started writing the Man Meets Scale blog, every time I would write a post where I would expose some new part of myself, I found myself quickly second-guessing: is this something I really want to put out there, both as a person and the CEO of a big company? But I decided that whatever personal risk I felt would be worth it, because I do think it’s important for people with obesity to know that they’re not alone.

You write that in your freshman year at Duke, you “majored in smorgasbord,” and gained 45 lbs. How did that happen?
I would say it was a combination of all-you-can-eat cafeteria food and beer and pizza. And fast food on top [of that], and eating a bag of chips. Just kind of unbridled consumption. Ironically, the weight I put on back in college actually made me feel like I looked more normal, as opposed to being overly skinny. [Kirchhoff was 170 lbs. in high school.] It wasn’t really until after college that I kept gaining weight and found myself in the territory of clinical obesity.

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In the book, you describe going to a doctor in 1999 and finding out that you weighed 242 lbs. What effect did that have on you?
I wanted to throw up. I felt physically sick. Getting the blood work back was even more shocking. [Kirchhoff found out that his cholesterol was dangerously high.]

You hit your WW goal three years ago. What did that mean to you?
It was a big deal, in that I felt I had reached a milestone. I then became — like a lot of people — worried how I was going to keep this going. How am I going to maintain this loss? That’s when my education really began, about changing my behaviors and habits once and for all.

Your book suggests that the weight struggle is never over.
No, it never is, but I’m totally O.K. with it. It’s not as though I’m struggling and miserable. But it is the case that every single day, at mealtimes, in places where I’m surrounded by food, I’m actively working to make better choices. The reward for doing it is so huge that I’m totally great putting in that bit of effort every day.

Government studies show that the percentage of American men who are overweight is equal to that of women. Yet we hear very little about the male problem. Why?
Women have to deal with weight for a lot of the wrong reasons — media pressure and body image — that men have traditionally not experienced. However, obesity as a health condition needs to be treated as a health condition, and it affects men and women equally. And men are less likely to get engaged in dealing with it.

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It surprised me that you don’t think willpower is a good strategy for dieting.
I actually think the notion of willpower can be destructive. The reason I say that is that there is a presumption that one simply needs to exert willpower to ward off temptation. Knowing how our brains work from science, it’s a false premise. It never works. Rather, my view is that this is one place where I get to stack the deck in my favor. By managing my environment so that I’m not tempted, I don’t have to exert nearly as much willpower.

What do you mean by “a trigger food”?
A trigger food is a food that when you start eating it, you feel out of control, and you have a hard time stopping. Everybody has a different trigger food. For some people, it could be a box of chocolates, whereas you’ll see that some people will be fine only eating one or two. For some people it might be a bag of chips. In my case, it’s a pint of ice cream or a big bowl of nuts.

What’s the answer for people who graze, who nibble all day?
(Laughs.) That’s do as I say, and not as I do, because I’m a big grazer. One obvious tip is that it’s hard to graze if there’s not food immediately around you. So if you’re at the office, don’t keep food in your office. If you’re sitting down watching TV, try not to have food sitting on the coffee table right in front of you. If you’re at a party, and there are big platters of food, put [your food] on a plate and just have that much. Avoid eating food out of bags, boxes, large bowls and platters.

Do you exercise every day?
I do. My two bedrock habits are a healthy breakfast and a morning workout.

What do you say to the person who has been on 1,000 diets and still can’t lose weight?
You can’t lose weight following a typical diet, and it’s one of the big problems. A typical diet is to do something for two to three months, reach your goal and return to normal life. That will always have the same outcome: watching the weight come back. The trick is to establish long-term patterns and routines that you can live happily with for the rest of your life.

Do you ever feel self-conscious when you eat out with others? I bet people watch what you eat very closely to find out what your habits are.
I do. I also feel self-conscious that people feel that because of where I work, I’m judging, which I don’t. I’m sometimes amused that when I have dinner with people, they order more responsibly!

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