Weight Winners, in Glasgow, is the first commercial psychological package of its type in Britain, but at pounds 200 - with maintenance sessions at pounds 10 a time - can it really be worth the money?
Yes, says Joyce Glasswell, a mother of 13 from East Kilbride. She is 5ft 4in tall and wondered at the age of 64 if it would be worth trying to trim down her 10st 6lb figure. 'I'd been dieting ever since the birth of my fourth child when I reached 11st 6lb. I just had it fixed in my head that to lose weight I had to diet.' That was the first misconception Mrs Glasswell discarded as she learnt a new set of attitudes towards herself, her life and her body.
Mrs Glasswell was down to her teenage weight of 8st 6lb within five months of embarking upon a Weight Winners programme, last October. Dieting is out. Now she says she eats anything she wants and has discovered a welcome bonus: 'I couldn't tell you the last time I had indigestion.'
The secret, on the surface, is disarmingly simple but it involves some complex therapeutic ideas and quite hard work by Dr Martin's clients as they discover why they eat too much. Weight Winners are taught to eat only when they are genuinely hungry, and not to eat for comfort, the relief of boredom, habit or any other inappropriate reason.
Dr Martin's clients are taught to distinguish between being genuinely in need of nutrition, and therefore 'hungry', and experiencing an 'attack of appetite'.
Her methods involve unravelling the reasons why individuals eat for the wrong reasons which go back to childhood. She then builds on newly acquired insights to change attitude and behaviour. When these lessons are learnt, will-power, denial and the need to binge can be forgotten, she maintains: 'There is no such thing as will-power, only an internal power struggle between the child, adult and parent parts of our personalities which live within each of us.'
This is the approach of the transactional analyst who helps people achieve realistic adult attitudes to life instead of, in this case, behaving in an impulsive childish way about food and body shape.
Dr Martin also attacks her clients' diet-binge cycle with cognitive therapy in which negative attitudes are replaced with positive ones, and behaviour therapy in which the unwanted behaviour itself is tackled.
This holistic psychological approach may be unorthodox but it is tempered with common sense. She says the best person to ask about being thin is someone who is: 'The point is, people who are naturally thin don't ever eat to comfort themselves and only eat when they are genuinely hungry. They take no account of meals at standard times. Appetite is a desire for food. Hunger is a physiological feeling. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are artificial creations.'
In another attempt to break down standard eating attitudes her Weight Winners all take food to one of the sessions to provide a substantial meal. 'I encourage them to start the meal with whatever they fancy. Often, they choose the pudding because, as the forbidden food, it is naturally the most sought-after. When they've finished it, they find they are full and tend not to want anything else. So I produce a black plastic bag and I make them throw everything else away. It's usually the first time ever that they've been able to do that. It's a most important lesson,' she says.
The programme for 16 overweight people at a time is made up of eight sessions. These deal with why diets do not work; why clients overeat and are resistant to exercise; what triggers their binges and how to develop coping strategies for these; estimating a sensible weight to maintain for the rest of life - and learning to love yourself whatever your weight.
Vera Cole, 31, from Blantyre, may still be a size 24 but she has lost two-and-a-half stone and says her life is transformed. She no longer sees her weight as a central problem in her life. 'After years of unsuccessful dieting, I went to the introductory talk last March thinking if it was no good I'd go out and buy an Indian meal. But it was good. Cherie changed my life by making me think about me and not think about what other people were thinking about me. She gave me the freedom to do anything and everything I wanted, by asking the question: 'Who's telling me not to?' I learnt that the only person stopping you being better is yourself.'
Dr Martin, 32, who trained as a doctor in South Africa and now lives in Glasgow, came to the same conclusion on a stress-management course at medical school, a decade ago. 'Everyone was told to dress up in the most unsuitable clothes. A woman with tree-trunk legs appeared in fishnets and G-string, announcing: 'I know my legs could kick-start a Boeing, but they're my legs.' I will never forget her because she changed my attitude there and then. She showed me that what other people thought about my shape did not matter.'
She gave up diets there and then and began to formulate her ideas. She says she had been on the diet/binge treadmill from the age of 11. By the time she entered university she was five stone overweight and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of diets. 'I realised that I was in control of my life regarding friends, work and studies. But as far as my weight was concerned, I had given the control away to so-called diet experts, people I didn't know and who didn't know me. I decided to trust my body to eat what it wanted. So I ate junk food, chocolate, all the things I'd deprived myself of, and regained control of my body.'
Having taught herself to distinguish hunger from appetite, she reduced her weight to 9st 4lb and at 5ft 6in she has maintained this for years.
Ann Faulkner, a chartered psychologist, was so impressed by Dr Martin's methods that she now conducts some of the sessions herself. Both women stress the importance of re-educating people about food. 'Some people who overeat are abusing themselves,' says Ms Faulkner. 'For them, food is used not for nutritional purposes but to numb feelings such as loneliness and boredom. When you eat too much, food is not a nutrient. In such cases it is comparable with any other dependency, such as tobacco, sex or drugs.'
But Dr Martin's re-education of clients into 'naturally thin' people should be treated with caution for some types of eating problem. Dr Richard Newton, senior research fellow in eating disorders at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, believes that his anorexic patients would be at risk with such treatment because of their 'relentless pursuit of thinness'.
Dr Newton, who also treats obese patients at the hospital's Cullen Centre, had not heard of the use of transactional analysis in this way before. 'It's an interesting concept, but I'm hearing alarm bells. I would be very wary of exposing any of my patients to this unresearched use of TA,' he says.
So concerned was Dr Newton that he contacted Dr Martin to ascertain exactly how she used the therapy. He was reassured, although not convinced. 'Our basic premises were very similar regarding diets. In 98 per cent of cases, chronic dieting leads to weight gain and is a prelude to anorexia or bulimia,' he said.
It seems that Dr Martin and Dr Newton, a psychiatrist, approach similar problems in different ways. 'I am trying to de-establish the importance of shape; I believe Dr Martin is trying to re-establish it.'
Ms Cole would agree; although now she no longer cares about what she weighs, she is losing weight whether she wants to or not. Dr Martin's mission is more ambitious. 'I want to rescue the whole Western world from the diet syndrome,' she says.
Weight Winners can be contacted at 2, The Crescent, Busby, Glasgow G76 8HT (041 644 1444).
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