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Success: Lives Changed, Not Pounds Lost
By Ann Douglas

From Radiance Spring 1998

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!"linda

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 with food.

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 weight loss.

"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?'

hugs logo "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 industry.

"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.

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