TOPS clubs take off weight the old-fashioned way

Mike DeDoncker

When you’ve tried all the quick fixes and every fad diet out there, there’s always TOPS.

That’s what Betty Rayburn discovered in March 2006 when pictures taken at her daughter’s wedding and feeling uncomfortable about what she would wear to an upcoming graduation told her it was time to do something positive about her weight. The Byron homemaker joined TOPS — an acronym for Take Off Pounds Sensibly — and 14 months later, she was 123 pounds lighter and a second-place Illinois division winner in the club’s motivational competitions.

“I’d tried everything,” said Rayburn, who attends weekly chapter meetings Tuesday nights at the Byron Public Library. “I had been in Weight Watchers, but I had never really tried a diet like a no-fat diet. I just don’t feel like you can eliminate one thing from your diet because you can’t live that way. Your body will crave that one thing — my body does anyway.”

Even though weigh-ins, a central part of every TOPS chapter meeting, are seen only by the member, the chapter’s designated weight recorder and an assistant, Rayburn was intimidated the first time she had to face the scale.

“I got on that scale and it was, like, ‘oh wow,’ ” she said.

She said the number she saw that first night “made me really determined to lose the weight.

You can visit a TOPS chapter once before joining, but I didn’t visit I just joined because I knew I needed to do it.”

Barb Farr, TOPS area coordinator for 19 northwestern Illinois counties, said the club helps those who can make the commitment to an eating plan and exercise.

“You can say we’re the old-fashioned way to take off weight,” Farr said, “but we’re the way that works.

“When you’re overweight or extremely obese, it’s difficult to walk into a TOPS chapter for the first time because you are basically admitting that you are obese and that’s a very difficult state to be in. It’s time to do what you know will work and what you know will work is your food plan, your exercise and the support you’re going to get from others.”

Ronette Wenberg, a TOPS area captain for 21 chapters in Winnebago, Ogle, Jo Daviess and Stephenson counties, said chapters treat their members with camaraderie, humor and sensitivity.

“When you have a serious weight problem, you are really judged in the outside world,” said Wenberg, who joined TOPS in 1963 and lost 137 pounds in three years. “When you come into a TOPS chapter, that’s just non-existent and when a person with weight issues realizes that everybody there comes from the same place it’s a lot more relaxing and a lot more comfortable situation.”

Although new members are asked to see their doctor to have a weight goal set for them, Wenberg said there is no pressure other than friendly competition to say “that we should weigh X amount of weight and we should take X amount of time to get to that weight because everybody is an individual and everybody is different.”

Farr said TOPS has adopted an exchange plan eating plan first developed for diabetics, but Wenberg added that members choose what works for them.

Rayburn said she immediately began keeping a food diary when she joined, recording everything she ate every day and when, to help her count a 1,200-calories-per-day diet.

She was surprised by what she was writing down in the first days of her plan. “I didn’t keep a diary the week before I joined, which is what you really should do before you start, but then when I went in that first time with a weight loss someone said well, it was just water weight.

“Then, it became, ‘You want to bet? I’m going to come in next week and it’s still going to be off with more besides.’ ”

Rayburn, who walks for 30 minutes six to seven days a week for exercise, said she hasn’t strayed from her eating plan “because I haven’t deprived myself of anything.

“I’ve counted calories and accounted for a 100-calorie pack every day, so I don’t feel deprived. I’ve never lost my motivation and I don’t know why. I got it there that March and I still have it.”

Mike DeDoncker can be reached at (815) 987-1382 ormdedoncker@rrstar.com.

Facts about TOPS

The name: TOPS is an acronym for Take Off Pounds Sensibly and the short name for TOPS Club Inc., a nonprofit, noncommercial network of more than 10,000 chapters in the U.S., Canada and several other countries.

Membership: More than 180,000 worldwide.

Costs: Annual dues are $24 in the U.S., $30 in Canada. Members also pay chapter fees which amount to less than $5 per month on average.

How it works: Weekly meetings include private weigh-ins and professionally-prepared informational programs on nutrition, exercise and healthy lifestyle. The programs provide reinforcement and motivation to help members adhere to food and exercise programs.

KOPS: The acronym for Keep Off Pounds Sensibly, a subgroup for members who have reached their weight-loss goal and want to maintain it.

Figures: TOPS members in the U.S. lost a total of 770,530 pounds in 2007. Canadian members lost 180,733 pounds.

On the Web:tops.org.