Longtime Weight Watchers leader helped Fort Wayne shed thousands of pounds
Back in the 1970s, Debbie Powers lost 100 pounds to make her high school’s pom-pom squad
By Tanya Isch Caylor
Debbie Powers has heard a lot of excuses in her 34 years as a Weight Watchers leader, but this one’s a doozy.
How do you stick to a diet if you’ve spent the past three days at an Amish wedding, with chip dip-and-doughnut breaks sandwiched between heavy meals?
The Amish driver’s classmates listen wide-eyed as she describes the pans of peach delight and 65 pies that accompanied the wedding cake.
“They had 5-gallon buckets of mashed potatoes,” she said. “And they ran out – they had to go get more food!”
While Powers’ Sunday afternoon Northcrest class digests these details, trying to fathom how hard the wedding guests must work to stay trim, the longtime leader suggests a strategy to help the van driver fit some exercise into a schedule that often keeps her out until 9 p.m.
Recalling a truck driver who lost weight walking laps around his semi-trailer, Powers suggests the van driver try something similar.
Having vented her frustrations, the woman resolves to do better in the coming week.
“I lost a lot of weight when I was with Debbie before,” she tells the person seated next to her.
“And you can do it again!” Powers says.
Too fat for the pom-pom squad
Powers’ own weight-loss journey began at Elmhurst High School, where the 1975 graduate yearned to trade her cumbersome marching band uniform for a spot on the pom-pom squad.
“They looked like they were having so much fun. I wanted to be a pom-pom girl so bad,” she remembers. But she knew she was way too heavy to squeeze into one of those uniforms.
Then Powers’ aunt took her to Weight Watchers. She lost 100 pounds within 10 months – and was voted captain of the pom-pom squad.
Powers returned to Weight Watchers after putting on “the freshman 15” in college, and again after giving birth to three kids. She became a leader in October 1983. That makes her the longest-serving leader in town, though there’s a receptionist who’s been at it one year longer and another leader who started one year after Powers did.
One of Powers’ regulars in her weekly Northcrest class is the aunt who introduced her to Weight Watchers more than 40 years ago.
Frances Milan says she’s amazed how many people her niece has helped since then – not just through Weight Watchers but as a healthy-eating advocate who’s volunteered for countless projects around town.
“God used me to direct her, to put her on this path,” Milan says afterward, beaming.
“It’s amazing the people I’ve had in class,” Powers says, recalling police officers, ministers, CEOs, “a ton of nurses” and at least one doctor, who told her “that I knew more about nutrition than he did.”
Powers’ message, no matter what group she’s working with, is the empowerment that accompanies good nutrition.
“If you eat healthy,” she explains, “you aren’t going to have all the medical bills.”
The abandoned wheelchair
Many people wind up in Powers’ class because they want to slim down for a wedding or class reunion. But occasionally someone makes a life-altering change, and there was one in particular that still stands out, many years later.
“Oh my gosh, it gives me chills just thinking about it!” Powers says.
This was early on, back when she was still wondering if she was making much of an impact as a leader. Then one day a woman showed up in a wheelchair. Her adult children had brought her, and they had quite a time getting her out of the wheelchair and up onto the scale.
When the woman shared her story, she described the moment she knew things had to change: She wanted something from the fridge, but couldn’t get up off the couch.
“And I realized,” the woman sobbed, “that’s why I can hardly walk – because I’m always going to the fridge.”
Eventually the woman lost 140 pounds, making it to her goal weight. The group planned a special celebration. But the guest of honor was late.
“We couldn’t figure out where she was,” Powers said.
“Finally she came walking through the door – carrying her daughter on her back. And she says, ‘This is what I’ve been carrying around all this time.’ ”
Buoyed by her loss, and with Powers’ encouragement, the woman later went on to earn a nursing degree.
The secret to weight loss
So what is the secret to Weight Watchers success?
Is it the weekly weigh-ins? The financial commitment? The group support?
All of the above, many members say. But the real key is consistently tracking food consumption.
“Tracking is huge,” said one lifetime member at Powers’ Sept. 10 meeting, who admitted that letting up over the summer had led to a gain.
Powers nods. Recording every bite, whether on paper or an electronic device, can be a hassle.
But nothing is better at taking the mystery out of weight loss. After a good week, you can see which meals and snacks were helpful. And even in a bad week, she notes, your tracking device can help you spot patterns in your behavior.
“Back in the day,” she says, “I had someone in class who became a lifetime member. She’s tracked every day for 30 years – and she hasn’t weighed in over goal in all that time.”
Contacted later, Terri Strong, an administrative assistant at Lincoln Financial Services, confirms that she really has maintained her goal weight since 1987 – and that consistent daily tracking is a big part of the reason why.
But Strong credits Powers for inspiring her 33-pound loss.
“Debbie just didn’t stand up in front of the class and discuss the weekly topics, she discussed learning how to eat healthy,” Strong said. “I knew if I was struggling with something regarding the program, she would always make time to talk to me. All of this helped me stayed motivated.”
Ultimately, Strong said, what she learned was a new way of life. She no longer thinks of herself as being on a diet.
“I’ll always appreciate her for introducing me to a new healthier lifestyle,” Strong said.
Mistakes as stepping stones
Ask Powers for her top dieting tips, and she doesn’t readily recite a list of hints and hacks. Ultimately, she believes learning to eat sensibly is an ongoing project that requires an underlying foundation of support, accountability and self-awareness.
“Food is the hardest thing to deal with, because you can’t just put it away and get it out of your life. When you’re frustrated or upset, the easiest thing to do is eat.”
This week, she tells her class, “work on boosting your awareness.”
Translation: Track everyday, even on the bad days. Eat more fruit, vegetables and protein, even while you’re learning how to eat less overall.
“You have to remember that you’re human,” she says afterward. “We all make mistakes. You shouldn’t beat yourself up about it, you should learn from it.”
Do that, she says, and “your mistakes become your stepping stones.”
This article was originally published Sept. 26, 2017 in The News-Sentinel in Fort Wayne, Ind., as part of my “Adventures in Food and Fitness” collection of columns.