TOPS offers weight-loss support at skinnier price

Ellie Collins, 73, celebrates her progress during a meeting last week of TOPS, a weight-loss support group. (Dan Pelle)

Near the top of every TOPS meeting, there’s a weight-loss roll call. Or weight gain or weight maintenance, depending on what kind of week the member had.

At one such gathering last week in north Spokane, women who reported losses received cheers and applause. But the responses were positive for those who’d gained some weight, too.

“We’re glad you’re here,” called out fellow chapter members who’d gathered around tables in a meeting room at Turning Point Open Bible Church.

Weight loss is a long haul, they know. The organization – its name stands for Take Off Pounds Sensibly – aims to provide education and support that lasts.

“This isn’t just ‘I want to lose 20 pounds for my class reunion or for a dance or for a wedding,’ ” said its national president, Barb Cady. “This is long-term, lasting change that is going to require some work and some modification.”

The organization has lasted, too: Going on 70 years, its heyday may be past. But according to its members – and a recent study that noted its low cost compared with commercial weight-loss programs – it still works.

“We really are a great support group,” said Barbara Groves, 75, who’s planning to step down as TOPS’ Eastern Washington coordinator after founding her first chapter 47 years ago. “We become like a family.”

TOPS’ membership peaked in the 1980s, Cady said. It doesn’t have celebrity endorsements, and it doesn’t have splashy advertising. Or, really, much advertising at all, relying on events like health fairs and word of mouth to reach new participants.

But it has 150,000 members in the U.S. That includes 4,385 members in Washington, who lost a combined 22,767 pounds in 2013. Idaho’s 815 Idaho members lost 2,491.25 pounds. (Exactly. Members’ weight losses and gains are recorded to the quarter pound, in private, at the start of each meeting.)

While its membership skews older, TOPS chapters set up in workplaces tend to run younger, Cady said. Baby boomers are joining in greater numbers as their children move out and they have more time to focus on health, she added.

Ellie Collins, 73, said she’s done Jenny Craig, Overeaters Anonymous, hypnosis and more. Only through TOPS, she said, has she ever met her weight loss goal.

Collins credited the group’s “highly motivational camaraderie.” And she likes that her chapter includes many KOPS – members who Keep Off Pounds Sensibly, their status announced by the emblazoned vests they wear to meetings – along with those still working to lose weight.

“We all have the same issues,” Collins said.

Strong relationships makes members feel accountable to one another, said Otis Orchards resident Tammy Postlethwaite, 55, who joined TOPS in 2005. Rather than using a TOPS food plan, she takes a low-carb approach, emphasizing vegetables and protein.

A pledge they recite at the start of meetings contains truth, Postlethwaite said.

“The part about ‘even though I overeat in private, my excess poundage is there for all the world to see’ – I think a lot of people with weight issues overeat in private,” she said.

To learn that was illuminating: “Anytime you struggle with anything, sometimes you think, ‘I’m probably the only person who does this.’ ”

‘Homey,’ cheaper option

TOPS encourages members to consult their doctor for help setting a goal weight. They also might follow dietary guidelines set by their doctor, Groves said.

But for those looking for guidance, TOPS recommends two eating plans that emphasize balance and moderation: the MyPlate guidelines promoted by the U.S. government and TOPS’ own Food Exchange System, which divides foods into groups and assigns them values based on their carbohydrate, protein and fat content. Depending on a member’s weight and weight-loss goal, he or she eats a certain number of “exchanges” from each group daily.

A system of recognition marks members’ successes, including small victories – weight loss after a birthday or other food-centric holiday – and big ones, such as major weight loss sustained over years.

To anyone who’s heard of Weight Watchers, the format might sound familiar.

TOPS came first, launched in 1948 by Milwaukee’s Esther Manz, who carried her bathroom scale to a community center and weighed in her friends, according to a TOPS history. Weight Watchers started in the 1960s.

But while Weight Watchers has grown into a for-profit company with celebrity endorsements and slick materials, including online and smartphone tools and branded products, TOPS remains nonprofit and “noncommercial.”

“I think we’re much more homey,” Cady said.

Rather than a flaw-free Jessica Simpson, TOPS’ website features photos of slimmed-down members, including their real-life wrinkles and lumps. Rather than paid staffers, elected volunteer leaders run its chapter meetings, with members taking turns presenting “programs.” Dues money not spent on members goes toward obesity research.

There’s also a substantial price difference.

TOPS membership costs $28 a year, plus maybe a buck or two a week in dues, depending on the chapter. Weight Watchers fees vary, but membership costs roughly $10 to $15 a week, plus registration fees in some cases.

A 2011 study published in the journal Obesity found that the cheaper program can work just as well.

Researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus tracked the weight loss of thousands of TOPS members. They found that people who spent three years in the program lost 5 percent to 7 percent of their body weight and kept it off – results the study’s authors called comparable to more expensive commercial programs. (While TOPS Club provided access to its data, it provided no funding for the study.)

Fun beyond food

It took awhile for the 17 women – men are welcome, too – gathered for the Thursday morning meeting to get down to the nitty-gritty of weight loss.

First they recited pledges and sang songs and issued reports on ailing friends and on their chapter treasury.

“I am an intelligent person,” began the pledge for those still striving to lose. “I will control my emotions and not let my emotions control me.”

Selections from the TOPS songbook included “Tiny Portions” (to the tune of “Tiny Bubbles) and “You’ll Be Petite-r” (à la “You Are My Sunshine”). Chapter leader Nancy Russell, 60, played guitar.

But then Grace Bingle took the podium to talk about staying motivated. She prompted the group to list their reasons for wanting to lose weight.

“Being able to tie your shoes,” someone called out.

“Being able to see your feet,” someone added, to laughter.

“Being happy again,” someone said.

They laughed frequently. They talked about what they stood to gain from weight loss and their daily hurdles: TV ads that trigger cravings, stress, feeling sick. Grandchildren – what do you do with the cookies you got for them after they’ve left your home?

Groves told the group she puts them in her deep freezer.

“Have you ever had a frozen cookie?” Collins said. “They’re wooonderful.”

Denise Castles, 53, a new member, said she liked the upbeat, supportive atmosphere.

“It takes the focus off eating,” she said.

Online

TOPS has 21 chapters in the Spokane area. For more information or to find a chapter, go to www.tops.org.

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