Meet Dr. Gary Foster, Ph.D., WW’s chief science officer, a psychologist, and obesity investigator who specializes in behavior change. The author of more than 175 scientific publications and three books, Gary oversees the science-based WW program and its innovations, plus the company’s clinical research initiatives.
He recently sat down with Melissa Dobbins, a registered dietician-nutritionist and the host of SoundBites Podcast, which explores the science, psychology, and strategies behind good food and nutrition. Here are a few highlights:
M: How has weight management changed over the past 5 to 10 years?
G: People who are embarking on a weight and wellness journey now think about the process. It used to be, “I don’t really care about what’s healthy, I’m just focused on losing weight,” and “I’m really zeroed in on what that number on the scale says, so I’ll try things that are a little bit unsafe.” The psychological and mindset aspects were largely ignored. Now people are saying, “I want to lose weight, but I want to come out with a healthier eating pattern I can live with for the long term.”
Exercise is also much more important and not just because it drives weight loss—you lose 20% more weight if you are physically active than if you’re not—but because people see physical activity as an end in of itself since it boosts your mood, self-confidence, and self-esteem, and it reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes and lowers blood pressure.
What’s more, people now say “I need help getting my head in the right space.” Eating differently and moving differently isn’t enough—they really need help with keeping themselves in the game through science-based, proven, practical techniques.
M: What kind of mindset techniques and tools are incorporated into the WW program?
G: People are used to thinking about eating and activity habits. But people have thinking habits, too. A mantra we use a lot is, “if you change what you think, you can change what you do.” It’s why about 50% of the content in our face-to-face workshops is about mindset.
Self-compassion is one of the techniques we spend a lot of time on, since it’s mistakenly believed that being harsher on yourself—the “just do it” tough love mentality—drives behavior change, which isn’t the case.
We also spend a lot of time on body positivity; people mistakenly think that if you really hate your body before going on a weight-loss and wellness journey, you’ll do better. But you actually do worse. It’s this duality of saying “I’m appreciative of my body,” and “I want to improve my overall health and wellbeing.”
M: The think, feel, act cycle—a growth mindset versus a defeatist approach—is much more positive.
G: That’s exactly right. If you think that weight loss will be linear—that you’ll lose a pound a week for X weeks or never have a setback—when reality sets in, that there’s some weeks you maintain, some weeks you gain, some weeks where you have more setbacks than victories, that’s the baseline. The growth mindset makes a big difference when you encounter ups and downs.
M: That thinking style can serve us in all areas of our lives.
G: Certainly, the thinking pattern that makes weight management sustainable pays off in important ways off the scale, too. If you’re an all-or-none thinker, or if you just focus in on the negative, you’re not going to be a great employee or partner; you’re not going to be pleasant to be around. A lot of the things that we talk about often at WW Workshops are centered around weight, but these thinking styles show up outside of a weight and wellness journey.
For example, imagine going grocery shopping, and when you come home, you say, “I forgot the peanut butter. The whole trip was a waste.” Really, the whole trip, when you came back with $300 worth of groceries, was a waste? Often people can see that a little easier—that that’s not really a helpful thinking style. Changing your thinking has benefits that pay off in unexpected ways.
M: You talk about helping people discover their “why.” I think it’s such a powerful concept, so can you talk about that a little bit?
G: A motto we have at WW is “Keep your why close by.” The rationale for that is a science-based process that calls on you to be linked into your values and the behaviors that represent your values. I remember early in my clinical work, sitting with a patient and I would say, “Why are you here?” They would look at me quizzically and say, “I want to lose weight.” So, I replied, “Yeah, I get that, but why do you want to lose weight? What benefits will weight loss bring besides a lower number on the scale?” And that’s when you hear what’s really important. They wanted to be a model of healthy eating, activity, and wellness for their kids, or they were an empty-nester and had been looking after people for decades, never caring for themselves. Or it would be very functional things like, “I just want to roll around on the floor with my kids and my grandkids.” I wanted to get people anchored in on that benefit rather than, “I need to lose 22 pounds; I need to get below 200.” Thinking about “why” is a motivational strategy. Also, it gets them less tied to using the scale to judge their success.
M: I also wanted to touch on tracking calories and why calories are not enough. So could you talk to me about that?
G: Five or 10 years ago, people were telling our consumer insights team, “Why would I track a point when calories are more and more ubiquitous?” Today, we know—and consumers know—calories don’t tell you much when it comes to wellness. You could lose weight whether you ate 1,200 calories of broccoli or candy. A calorie is a calorie; we aren’t recreating the laws of thermodynamics. But if you eat your 1,200 calories in a way that excludes a whole food group, it’s not a healthy pattern of eating. Today, the thing that we’re really focused in on is teaching people healthy eating patterns, independent of what you weigh. When we do a new food innovation and we update our points formula, we don’t go devise a points formula that improves weight loss. We develop a points formula that nudges people to a healthier pattern of eating based on what we know scientifically.
There are four things that science would say are important to include or look out for to achieve a healthier pattern of eating: calories, saturated fat (because not all fat is the same), sugar (because not all carbs are the same), and protein for its satiating effects. Those four things are distilled into one simple number—a SmartPoints® value—and we show up in a digitally accessible way with a barcode scanner and one of the largest food databases on the globe to make finding SmartPoints values simple.
M: We know that science builds trust. As the chief science officer, will you talk about that a little bit more?
G: Sure. You would expect the chief science officer of a company like WW to tell you how important science is. It’s what I do. It’s what I’ve been trained to do for the last 30 years. But what I think is really important for us, as we have credibility to impact millions of people across the globe, is that when you ask our members and future members to describe WW, the first phrase that comes out of their mouth is “It works” or “It’s based on science.” In a category where there are lots of false promises, lots of manufactured hope, we think it’s a really privileged position to be in a category for 50-plus years now and to have the consumers trust us. And when you scratch that a little bit and ask them why they trust us, it’s because of the science. At the end of the day, people don’t want to invest time, energy, and effort into a process that isn’t based on science.
M: Is there anything else you want people to know about the WW programs?
G: The sense of community is outstanding. We started embodying that in our face-to-face workshops over 50 years ago, and we’ve been able to modernize our approach to not just deliver that in our face-to-face workshops but on our app as well with a digital community called Connect. It’s so inspiring.
RELATED: What is WW Connect?
People talk about the weight loss journey and say I’ve lost X pounds. They tell their heart-warming stories about how that’s transformed not just their bodies, but their overall perspectives. But people share a lot of other things, too. It’s a place to find your tribes: There’s WWBros for men and WWTurtleClub for people who are losing weight slowly. There’s new moms, brides, vegans, a lot of different things.
The most popular hashtag is #NSV, non-scale victories, which you wouldn’t exactly expect from a company known largely for weight management and wellness.
Connect is a safe and overwhelmingly inspiring place. I know if I’m having a rough day, I go on, scroll for two minutes, and feel like a different person.