Lives Changed, Not Pounds Lost
By Ann Douglas
You will find a scale in Linda Omichinski's office-but
you won't find it being used to weigh human beings.
"When I first started out as a dietician, I
bought one of those expensive scales that doctors use in their offices
for weighing people," she explains, cringing as she recalls how
closely linked the concepts of "weight" and "health"
were at that time-even in her own head.
Ten years later, the scale is enjoying a pleasant
second career, working for-rather than against-the nondiet movement!
"We use the scale to weigh the packages that we mail out to our
facilitators," she laughs. "So I guess you could say that the
scale did come in handy after all!"
Judging by the response to HUGS International Inc.-the
nondiet company that Omichinski founded-that trusty scale must get a
fair bit of use. HUGS has a network of facilitators that spans North
America as well as such countries as New Zealand, South Africa, and, to
a lesser extent, the United Kingdom. Through its support groups and
publications, HUGS works to combat the diet
mentality-"all-or-nothing thinking"-which is so harmful to a
dieter's self-esteem; it also works to eliminate the "shoulds"
and "shouldn'ts" that control too many people's relationships
Omichinski explains: "HUGS teaches people how to
live the nondiet lifestyle, keeping their lives in balance, building in
time for themselves, and abandoning some of the perfectionistic
tendencies that may be affecting their enjoyment of life."
In her early days as a certified dietician, Omichinski
offered traditional diet programs. Then, after one of those defining
moments (the ones that strike when you least expect them), Omichinski
suddenly realized that diets don't work. That realization changed the
path of her life.
"I noticed that my clients seemed to be really
happy with the individualized diets that I put them on, saying that they
didn't feel deprived and that they were pleased with their weight
loss," she recalls. "Then I wouldn't see them for a while, but
noticed that if I ran into them at the grocery store, they felt
embarrassed because they had gained the weight back.
"Something was wrong: it didn't feel right. I
began searching and listening some more, and throughout the years, HUGS
came about. However, I must admit that this was quite a long process.
HUGS's nondiet approach to health started out as a nondiet approach to
"It took a few years of inner searching and
talking to more and more people before I realized that the focus on
weight needed to be removed altogether. The turning point for me came
when a client said, 'Linda, I am no longer starving and bingeing. I am
eating more regularly. I am beginning to enjoy healthier foods and feel
the energy those foods bring me. I am enjoying walking for the fun of
it. But I am not losing weight. What am I doing wrong?'
"That hit me like a
ton of bricks. I said, 'You aren't doing anything wrong.You may be at
the weight your body was meant to be.'
"Now, that was hard for the client to accept,
because she had learned to judge her success by the number on the scale.
It was obvious to me, however, that the number on the scale did not
accurately reflect her success. This individual glowed with health but
would be considered unsuccessful nonetheless if the traditional measures
of success-her weight and her body mass index (BMI)-were used."
Omichinski began offering HUGS classes in her small
home town of Portage la Prairie, in Manitoba, Canada, where she lives.
Participants who attended her classes loved the program, and began
asking for a book, a video, and so on. In 1992, Omichinski's book You
Count, Calories Don't was published. That's when the momentum really
began to pick up.
"We financed a book tour across Canada and
brought facilitators on board at the same time," Omichinski
recalls. "This part was satisfying and exciting. However, there
were many hard times. Facilitators found it fairly easy to draw people
out to the first few classes, because of the media attention that these
classes initially attracted, but because the message was still very much
ahead of its time, participants didn't spread the word about HUGS. Their
reluctance to speak about their experiences is understandable.
Relatively few people were ready to hear the message that you can be
healthy at any size."
Fortunately for Omichinski, there were people eager to
embrace her message, and, slowly but surely, interest in HUGS spread.
"Throughout time, HUGS moved into the United
States. I attended American Dietetic Association conferences, presented
at conferences, and wrote a number of articles for the Healthy Weight
Journal, an internationally respected publication. At about the same
time, Mary Evans Young-founder of International No-Diet Day-introduced
You Count, Calories Don't into the United Kingdom, and the word about
HUGS began to spread as far as South Africa and New Zealand."
Despite its success and international reach, HUGS
International Inc. remains, for all intents and purposes, a one-woman
show. "It's me, myself, and I, plus individuals working with me on
a contract basis," Omichinski explains.
Administrative assistant Heidi Mead-herself a HUGS
devotee!-is picking up an increasing amount of the workload, however, as
HUGS continues to grow.
In addition to running HUGS, Omichinski works as a
consulting dietician in a hospital-based diabetes education center and
heart health education center. The diabetes education center is one of
twelve in the province of Manitoba. All of the centers take weights and
calculate BMIs. The centers need to send in forms that indicate weight,
blood sugar, level of education, and so on, both for statistical
purposes and to justify the continuation of the program. But Omichinski
hasn't compromised her position one bit. "I never weigh people, and
the BMI line is always blank. No one dares to say anything, as they know
I won't do it!"
If Omichinski comes across as a crusader, it's
certainly for good reason. For many years, she's been going against the
tide in her work as a consulting dietician, telling people that diets
don't work and that there is an alternative to counting calories.
"The other day, I saw a client at a diabetes
education center. She wanted to discuss why she had gained twenty pounds
since having surgery. On probing further, I discovered that she had lost
twenty pounds while she was sick, and then had simply put the weight
back on after her surgery.
Once she realized that it is quite normal to regain
the weight that you lose when you are sick, that it wasn't her fault or
anything that she was doing wrong that caused her to gain this weight
back, she immediately felt better. However, the big surprise for me came
when my colleague, who overheard our conversation, asked me at the end
of the day what I thought about the client's weight gain. I looked at
her and said, 'Mary's blood sugars are wonderful. You can be large and
be healthy, too.'"
It's a message that both health professionals and
clients need to hear time and time again.
"I think that the dieticians felt particularly
threatened by HUGS at first," Omichinski recalls. "After all,
diets are what dieticians are trained in and what they know best. If
they don't instruct people on diets and don't gain new skills in this,
then what do they do? It was a hard message to sell."
Clients are also sometimes reluctant to buy into the
idea. "Just as health professionals must move slowly along the
continuum from using a weight-focused medical model in which the
professional sets the rules to a nondiet empowerment model that shows
participants how to take responsibility for their own health, clients
must move through the same process. First, they are frustrated; next,
they realize that dieting doesn't work; then, they become aware of
nondiet approaches and they educate themselves about these approaches;
and, finally, they seek out programs. This process may take years."
Fortunately, says Omichinski, diet-weary clients and a
new generation of health care professionals are beginning to embrace the
nondiet message with considerable enthusiasm.
She's met with the most success at home.
"Canada is the most progressive country in terms
of accepting the nondiet message, even though it took many years for
momentum to pick up (that is, from 1987 until about two years ago). We
are there now. We see more and more nondiet books on the market. Compare
that with the early nineties, when my publisher's distributor was not
interested in carrying You Count, Calories Don't for long because it was
not a diet book."
Although Canada appears to be a few years ahead of
other countries in the nondiet movement, there is a growing momentum
around the world.
"Wherever I have traveled, people seem to be
struggling with the same diet issues as we are in North America. I
recently returned from New Zealand, where I was surprised to see the
same type of diet commercials and emphasis on 'losing that gut' that you
see on North American TV. Fortunately, countries such as New Zealand are
looking at working with a more nondiet approach as part of their
national health policy."
It is not, however, easy for governments-or
individuals-to counter the powerful messages being sent out by the diet
"The diet industry is certainly a successful
business in that it gets people to feel that the program worked and they
failed, and so every time people go 'off the diet,' they gain the weight
back and need to go back to the diet program again. It's a wonderful
repeat business: that's why the diet industry makes billions. We in the
nondiet movement need to get the message out that diets just don't work.
"I tell my clients, 'You didn't fail. Diets
failed you!' I tell them to stop putting their lives on hold. I tell
them that they no longer need to attach their self-worth to the number
on the scale, that they can throw away the scale and the diet sheets and
be free to relearn some of the basic skills they knew before they
started dieting: to eat when they are hungry, to stop when they are
full, to live a balanced lifestyle that includes enjoyment of food and a
celebration of body movement, to learn to make small changes that help
them to appreciate tastes and textures that are healthier for them, to
build into their schedules time for themselves, and to learn to pace
themselves. We do have choices and we need to make the choices that are
best for us."
Sometimes that means educating your family doctor that
it is possible to be healthy and large. "Tell your doctor or health
professional that you have been on many diets before and they have only
made you heavier. Then explain what you are doing positively in terms of
your lifestyle," Omichinski suggests. "By then asking if there
is anything else you should be doing, he or she will soon get the point
that you have made positive changes in your life and that, yes, one can
be healthy and large."
Omichinski has accomplished a lot in ten short years,
but she's quick to put her achievements in perspective. "We
certainly have made a dent in helping to move the market forward as the
message gets multiplied by our growing number of facilitators. But we
are a small company and realize that we can't compete head-to-head with
the major diet companies. We simply don't have the finances to run the
commercials required to combat those diet messages-even though we do
have visions of what those commercials would look like!"
If any of those antidiet commercials ever managed to
hit the air, the North American consumer would likely do a double take.
One proposed script shows a woman weighing herself and feeling happy
because she's lost weight. A subsequent scene shows her husband using a
screwdriver to set the scale back, so she will continue to be in a good
mood. The caption reads, "Are you tired of the scale determining
your mood and setting the tone of the day?"
"We have grown slowly and we practice the same
philosophy in our business that we teach," Omichinski says.
"One step at a time, recognize and appreciate the small successes,
and don't judge success simply by external terms (that is, weight loss
when referring to lifestyle, or income when referring to business
success)." HUGS has worked to develop adult and teen nondiet
programs and books. Omichinski's main interest now, she says, is
"to nurture our existing network and expand it so that the momentum
grows and it becomes easier for our facilitators to attract participants
to the program. The one big problem we have had in the past is that
participants tell us they love the HUGS program, yet they want to keep
it to themselves. The reason is simple: the message that they get from
HUGS is so different from what society says that often people haven't
the time or the energy to spread the word. I say 'energy,' because
that's exactly what it takes to explain the philosophy to new people.
Many people outside the nondiet movement are not yet ready to hear the
message and can be confrontational.
"I am pleased to be able to say that this is
beginning to change, thanks to the increasing number of nondiet books
and the fact that the nondiet message is becoming a bit more mainstream.
People are beginning to share the freeing life changes they have
experienced, and word is beginning to spread."
Omichinski measures her success in the number of lives
she's helped to change. And the facilitators who lead HUGS groups
provide her with plenty of encouragement. They generously pass along
stories that illustrate time and time again that HUGS is making a
difference in people's lives.
One recent graduate of the HUGS program told her
facilitator that she had, for the first time in years, agreed to have a
photo taken of herself.
Another participant-Leah Sorenson of Victoria, British
Columbia, sings praises of HUGS. "When I first came across the HUGS
program, I was walking through a plaza and saw the booth about
International No-Diet Day. I was intrigued yet slightly defensive, as I
had just embarked on my fourth attempt with Weight Watchers,"
Sorenson says. "A few days later, I heard from Christie, the HUGS
facilitator who had been staffing the booth. She asked me about my
current situation. I told her that I had been feeling quite 'out of
control,' but had taken a positive step by joining Weight Watchers
again. The program was working and I was doing quite well. Then Christie
said something that really hit home: 'If you're rejoining for the fourth
time, how is it working for you?' I was at a loss for words!"
Sorenson joined the local HUGS support program and
soon found herself making some positive changes in her life. "From
the information session onward, this program has been life enhancing,
thought provoking, and energy building. It has changed my way of
thinking and my way of life. I've learned that the scale doesn't matter:
what matters is that I am happier when I look in the mirror, that I can
run farther, and that I feel good."
It's stories such as these and the unwavering support
of her enthusiastic network of facilitators that keep Omichinski going.
"It's hard to sell something when you're ahead of
the market. And it's hard to stay in business long enough for the market
to catch up," admits Omichinski.
"It's also costly to try to push the market
along. That's why it really took until year eight of our business to
begin to see a significant momentum. But we were, and are, committed to
sticking with HUGS for the long haul."
To find out more about books, newsletters, videos,
support groups, and other products and services available through HUGS
International Inc., you can dropby the company's Web site (http://www.hugs.com),
write to Hugs International Inc., Box 102A, R.R. 3, Portage la Prairie,
Manitoba, R1N 3A3, Canada or call 800-565-4847. The HUGS Web site
includes a message board and chat line, where you can meet other
nondieters for mutual support and friendship. ©
ANN DOUGLAS is plus-size and proud! She makes her
living as a freelance writer in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.
back to the Spring 1998 issue