It’s the season to lose weight – or at least to resolve to lose weight – so we called up Jackie Conn, general manager of Weight Watchers of Maine, to ask her why dieting is so darn difficult.

Q: Does your membership swell in January, given all the New Year’s resolutions?

A: It swells quickly, but there is an ebb and flow. It goes up pretty quickly, and it drops pretty quickly. The people who have decided to stay are those who have decided to stay for the right reasons: They want to be fit. They want to be healthier.

Q: What would be a wrong reason?

A: The wrong reason is because you are disgusted with yourself and you want to punish yourself: “I need someone to kick me in the butt so I lose weight.” But nobody wants to pay someone to get their butt kicked.

Q: Why is it so hard to lose weight?

A: (We live in) what they are now calling an obesigenic environment. That means there is food available everywhere, highly palatable food. There are cues to eat it. And we don’t have to use much of our own energy. There are so many labor-saving devices. You put all of that together, and it encourages overeating and sedentary behavior.

Q: Is it harder to lose weight in Maine than in other places?

A: The long winters. The cold. And as far as little cities go, there is a lot to do in Portland. Still, in Portland, in Maine in general, there is not as much to do in the winter. So one of the nice things to do is recreational eating and sitting around. And there are a lot of good restaurants in Portland. In other places, there are more activities, more things than just eating to keep minds and mouths busy. And we are the oldest state. Most of our population is right in the middle-aged spread years. Though I’ll add that as a state, we are right in the middle in terms of weight. So with all of the disadvantages, Maine people do particularly well in managing their weight.

Q: Good restaurants make it harder to lose weight? Because personally, I find it harder to stop eating junk food than good food, which seems strange.

A: I don’t like to make judgments and call food “junk.” But it’s not so strange. Really great food, prepared well, has so much other pleasure built into it, the experience, savoring. And some food is just built for shoveling. Also, a lot of people have it in their head when they walk into a great restaurant that they are going to have some baked fish or baked chicken, maybe broccoli on the side, and a salad with lemon. You walk in and are planning to have a very plain meal. And then you look at this wonderful menu. And especially if you are not the first person to order, it makes it very hard to stick to that spartan meal. And who would want to, anyhow?

Q: So what strategy would you suggest?

A: A lot of times now restaurants are online, so you can go online before you go and build a satisfying meal and fit it into what else you’ll eat that day or maybe for a few days. You go in with a good plan, and you can be really satisfied but not get sidetracked by whatever everybody else is ordering.

Q: The United States is in the midst of a food revolution with a lot of emphasis on healthy food – plant-based diets, healthy smoothies, kale as the trendy new food. Yet more Americans are overweight than ever before. What explains the paradox?

A: People are looking for a magic cure. They are looking for kale, the food of the moment, to be the answer. Or the magic five foods I should never eat to trim belly fat. But it’s not a magic cure. It’s a matter of boring old moderation. And if you don’t like kale and you are forcing yourself to eat a lot of kale and give up food that you love, you’re setting yourself up – like a pendulum, swinging in the opposite direction. At some point, you’ll find yourself overeating all of the foods you have been trying to avoid. What we need to do is help people have a healthy relationship with all foods. And that includes McDonald’s – if they like it.

Q: Do men and women diet differently?

A: They have different struggles. Men really jump on a dieting bandwagon, not all men obviously. But typically the male approach is “I’m giving up beer, I’m giving up sweets, I’m giving up pizza. I’m going to get to my goal fast and then I am going to eat everything I haven’t been eating on my diet.”

Q: So men both lose and gain weight fast?

A: Yes, that seems to be what happens. And the female approach tends to be more micro-managing, reading everything they can find. They read about lots of different diets and try to put them together for the one perfect diet. Endless, tedious tracking and portion control. Then at some point they say, “This isn’t worth it. I’m just not losing enough weight for all the work I’ve put into it.”

Q: Does cooking help people lose weight?

A: (Yes), especially when they are really mindful of cooking meals that are satisfying and have a variety of nutrients and maybe building it on vegetables and using meats as a seasoning. And smaller portions. Not eating all those (specially formulated) no-fat foods. People are finding that eating foods they enjoy and eating smaller servings is more satisfying than eating – I’ll call it a big bowl of chemicals. There is certainly a movement that says real food is more satisfying and conducive to healthy weight management.

Q: May I ask you a personal question: Have you struggled with your own weight?

A: Yes. I joined Weight Watchers after the birth of my third daughter. The oldest was a 5-year-old. Until then, I was able to keep my weight under control by eating two doughnuts and a cup of coffee for breakfast and a junior sundae for lunch, and then I wouldn’t eat for the rest of the day. But after the third daughter was born, I had my 5-year-old saying, “Mom, why are you having a doughnut for breakfast and making me eat oatmeal? And why don’t you ever join us for dinner?” And I thought to myself, “Oh! This is not what I want to be teaching my daughters.” I had four daughters. And they are all adults now and none has a weight problem. So I think four girls and none of them struggling to lose weight is pretty remarkable.

Q: If you could give just one piece of advice to someone who is struggling and about to give up on their diet, what would it be?

A: I would say, “Quitting is not an option.”

Peggy Grodinsky is the editor of Food & Dining. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @pgrodinsky