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Slimming World is the biggest slimming club in the UK. It was founded in1969 by Margaret Miles-Bramwell, who is chairman of the company today. The success of Slimming World lies entirely in the way it approaches weight loss management.Slimming World's nutritionists devised a method known as Food Optimising, designed to promote healthy eating habits whilst leading to sustainable and relatively painless weight loss. This is accompanied by a support network provided via weekly meetings, led by franchised consultants. The organisation also publishes a monthly magazine, numerous recipe and menu planning books and a small, but increasing, number of branded food stuffs.

Food Optimising

The linchpin of the Slimming World ethos is that to achieve and maintain weight loss in a healthy, sensible manner, the dieter should not suffer hunger or go without their favourite foods. The slimmer sticks to a plan which is divided into 3 basic food groups. First of all there is Free Food. The claim is that you really can eat as much as you want of these foods. Then there are Healthy Extras, a group of restricted foods which you need to measure. These are considered essential to good health, given, for example, their high fibre and calcium content, and as such their consumption is much encouraged. The last group of food is known as Sins. Different foods have different sin values and each day, you can use between 5 and 15 sins to complement your Free Food and Healthy Extras.

What this means in real terms is that you can eat, in one day, huge amounts of pasta, rice, fruit and vegetables (so far that's all Free Food) a few slices of wholemeal bread or a bowl of cereal and half pint of milk or an ounce of cheese (these are your Healthy Extras.) Then you can treat yourself to a couple of squares of chocolate or a glass of wine or a small dessert, according to your whim (these are your sins.) And you still lose weight!

I'm not a nutrionist, but I understand that Food Optimising works by making you eat more of foods which fill you up for less calories and restricting your intake of fat and sugar. The only way to lose weight is to create an energy deficit so that the fat stored in the body is burned for fuel, and the Food Optimising system achieves this without the need for calorie counting. The sins I have already mentioned are instead of calorie counting and the two concepts are not entirely compatible. You would assume, being used to the concept of calories, that a 'healthy choice' version of your favourite food, labelled as low in calories, sugar-free, fat-reduced and so on, would be a better choice for the dieter but this is not necessarily true on the Food Optimising plan. In addition, the diet plan gives the option of Original or Green days. This means you have the choice to eat lots of meat and minimal starchy food on an Original day or the exact opposite if you choose a Green day. Despite appearances, this is not like a food combining diet as you can have a bacon butty for breakfast quite legally on Original days. The actual science behind the method is not revealed anywhere that I can find, and the Slimming World website gives the factors taken into account when categorising or assigning sin values as follows:

  • a food's energy density
  • its health-giving properties
  • its ability to satisfy the appetite quickly
  • its ability to keep us feeling full longer
  • its ability to comfort us
  • and our behavioural patterns

Sins

There is a long list of the sin value of basic foods in the Food Optimising book you are given when you join Slimming World. There is a catalogue on sale of branded foods and a searchable database is provided on the website.

To give you an idea, a croissant is 11 sins, as is an average bottle of alcopop. A teaspoon of oil will cost you 2 sins while a bag of crisps will use a whole day's worth of sins, at 7.5 sins per ounce.

For optimal weight loss you are advised to stick to 10 sins a day. Obviously the stricter you are with your sins, the faster your weight loss but there are times when it's impossible. Enter, stage right, the concept of Flexible Sins. This is great for people who find it easy to go without treats from Monday to Friday, but come Saturday night they want to push the boat out with a nice three course dinner with wine or ten pints down the pub and a kebab on the way home.

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Members of Slimming World have to attend weekly classes. You can take some holiday/sick days but if you miss class on a regular basis your membership lapses. The idea is that the support of your consultant and those who sit alongside will help, encourage and motivate you.

Each consultant is free to run his or her class as he or she pleases but the basic structure goes something like this. First, you get weighed - in private - and the results are recorded in your personal booklet. You hand in your weekly food report sheet where you have written down everything you've eaten. The consultant then leads the class in an appropriate discussion, for instance, of new foods on the supermarket shelves and their sin value, low-sin recipes for the time of year, how to avoid blowing all your sins for a week on one night out and so on. The last part of the class focusses on giving awards to class members for various achievements, for example Slimmer of the Week, the Half-Stone Award or target achievement. This section of the class is seen to be crucial to the success of the individual and each and every member, even those who have lost no weight or, in the worst case, gained weight, is applauded. Slimming World has a strict policy of keeping class members' weights private. Only the loss achieved is discussed in class.

Each member sets their own weight loss aims. There are various stages involved. The Club 10 target is automatically awarded to any club member who loses 10% of his or her starting body weight. Members are encouraged to set an interim target and a final Personal Achievement Target. This final target cannot be below recognised 'safe' limits of weight-height ratios and membership is forfeited by anyone who falls below this minimum weight. On the other hand, those who achieve their target are invited to attend class for free for as long as they remain within 3 pounds of the target weight. Those members who have achieved their target, or are well on the way, can train to become consultants within a franchise-style operation and run their own classes under the Slimming World name. Consultants are expected to provide telephone support as and when necessary as part of their role.

The proof of the pudding...

I joined Slimming World a month ago, along with my mum. This was purely for research purposes, you understand. Ok, ok, I admit it. We have both wanted to lose weight for some time and had heard positively glowing reports of Slimming World from friends and family. And this is what we have found out so far.

It is hard work, making sure you count your sins correctly and choosing your Healthy Options. We have both had days where we inadvertently chose an extra item from the list or 'guesstimated' sins, resulting in the daily sins tally shooting off the scale. Shortly after joining up I went out for dinner at Pizza Express and, remembering the Flexible Sins mantra, ate pretty much what I wanted, only turning down pudding. The next day when I totted up the sins I nearly fell off my chair. 74 sins in one sitting! That's my weekly quota for goodness sake! So, yes, it's undeniably hard to eat out.

Some ready meals and convenience foods are surprisingly low in sins. As a veggie, I find Quorn is a godsend, being sin-free and easy to cook without added oil. I have made myself immune to artificial sweetener (what a sacrilege in decent coffee!) and I reluctantly roast vegetables using spray oils (now that's a sin, if ever there was one) rather than the generous pouring of olive oil I'm used to. Mum finds it really difficult not having potatoes with her meat. Yes you can feasibly do it, but it often pushes her over the sin limit.

Sacrifices have to be made, but, frankly, I'd rather do it this way than count every calorie and go hungry as you do with most other diets. With this plan you don't starve but you do still need to exercise some will power to choose wisely. If you want to drizzle olive oil on your pasta and top it off with a generous shaving of parmesan then you can't afford to have real sugar in your coffee or a biscuit to accompany it.

But the real test is when it comes to the weekly weigh-in. And so far, so good. Even though she is not sticking to the plan particularly well, Mum has lost an average of half a pound a week. I'm being more strict with my sins and have lost 2 pounds a week since I started.



Updates, June 2005:

Given that scientists makes new findings periodically, it is not surprising then that Slimming World make changes to the diet plan. Some rebranding and expansion has also occurred since I first wrote this. Here you go.

  • sins have been renamed Syns to reflect the concept of synergy
  • The calcium-based healthy extras have been increased in line with the latest weight-loss research which shows that increased calcium intake improves the progress of healthy, steady weight-loss
  • Times change, society changes. We all spend more time online and less time outside of the house. Enter the online version of Slimming Word meetings. www.bodyoptimise.com is a new website catering for those who are too busy to attend a class or unable to commit to a speciifc time and place every week

References:
http://www.slimming-world.co.uk
http://www.guardian.co.uk
http://www.helpisathand.gov.uk

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