I have finally found it – the weight watcher’s holy grail. Konjac. It’s a root vegetable (also known as amorphophallus konjac, “devil’s tongue” and “elephant yam”) that is high in fibre but has zero calories, so the more you eat of it the less you weigh, because you’re burning up calories just by chewing. They make it into noodles in Japan and it’s the secret ingredient in SlimFast porridge.
Now that even the NHS is saying meal-replacement strategies can save you from diabetes and other weight-related conditions such as cancer, stroke and heart attack, I felt the time was ripe to head to the SlimFast HQ in Ascot, sample their wares and meet their managing director, Lindsay Reisser-Weston. I took the train; she would probably have run all the way. She likes to run to and from work. “I have a six-mile route, and an eight-mile route, depending on the weather,” she says.
According to the stats, two-thirds of the nation are either overweight or obese. I can confirm that Reisser-Weston, at 49, would be in the other third. You could say that maybe she had a headstart in terms of fitness. She was born in Holywood in Northern Ireland and her father was chairman of Bangor Football Club (Ulster League Division 1) and put her and her two sisters to work selling programmes by the age of eight. “If any of us came back with unsold programmes, we were sent right back out again.” It was probably just about legal then, it instilled a solid work ethic and she got a taste for sports.
She went to the same school as Rory McIlroy but took up hockey rather than golf and played for the Ireland and Ulster U21s. She’s broken most of her fingers at different times stopping the ball at penalty corners and has been whacked around the head a few times, but has kept on going regardless. “You might lose a few teeth, but you have to spit them out and play on.”
Resisser-Weston played at Bristol University, where she studied geography, and went on playing into her late thirties; she is now in training for the Brighton marathon next April. “I get through quite a few pairs of trainers,” she says.
She worked with Weight Watchers for five years, where she was VP for marketing. And she was global brand director for Castrol, which took her to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. “The sporting angle drew me in,” she says. “But I also like classic brands.”
SlimFast has been around for the last 30 years. But 4 years ago, when Reisser-Weston was drafted in, they had only a brand name left. “We had no office and no staff. We met around the kitchen table at my house and redesigned the whole thing.” She has doubled market share and put the brand back on the radar. You can find it in Sainsbury’s, Boots and Superdrug. I was drawn in by the “Vitality” range for “Healthy Lifestyle Consumers” who want to lose weight “but in a holistic way”. Alexandra Burke, who is one of the brand ambassadors, swears by it and has allegedly lost two stone (I can’t verify this, but she looks in good shape in the TV commercial).
One sceptical friend said to me, “Oh come on, everybody knows it’s full of sugar.” Well, I have news for her. “We’ve taken out all the sugar,” says Reisser-Weston. Not only have they made it healthier, higher in fibre and protein, but it tastes better too. “We want it to taste nice,” says Reisser-Weston. They are always testing out their products on focus groups and reacting to feedback. It’s like an ongoing scientific experiment. Some 80 per cent of their customers are female, but that still makes for a lot of men, who are also targeted in the marketing.
We are just coming up to two of the three peak periods for dieting – Christmas and New Year (the third is just before you go on holiday and want to look optimal on the beach). Reisser-Weston is categorical. “With our plan you will lose weight.” The so-called 3-2-1 system involves three snacks, two meal replacements, and one evening meal. What about the risk of putting the pounds back on further down the road though? “It’s easy to maintain weight loss,” she says. When you want to stabilise, the idea is that you go back to a normal diet (hopefully, reasonably healthy), but with one meal replaced by one SlimFast product (soup or porridge or shake). They also give you online advice and tips about how much water to drink and what kind of activity is suitable for you. Not everyone has to run a marathon.
Sceptics (I can name names) can scoff and say, “It’s a placebo effect,” or “It’s a con, mate, don’t fall for it,” but, so far as I can make out, if it didn’t work then it wouldn’t keep on selling. The con is only going to be effective for so long and then word will get out. Eventually someone is going to call out the emperor’s new clothes. As Reisser-Weston puts it, “A lot of new products tend to fizzle out because they don’t meet consumer needs. They don’t live up to the hype.” The key thing that consumers are crying out for, she says, is “a diet that works”.
So by way of strict empirical testing, I tried out a “chocolate crunch meal replacement bar” on the train back to London (“It’s all you need for a meal” it says on the wrapper). I chewed it very slowly to get the full effect. I’m not pushing anything and, say what you will, but it was (a) delicious (b) satisfying. I didn’t feel the need to rush off and buy a burger at Paddington – not even a salad. It was only 217 calories and I still had enough energy for the gym.