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David Kirchhoff by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
David Kirchhoff by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

THE LUNCH

David Kirchhoff: The real skinny on Weight Watchers Add to ...

David Kirchhoff is being watched, and he knows it. That’s part of the deal when you’re the president and chief executive officer of Weight Watchers International, a $2.5-billion business that depends on convincing people you can help them collar their animal impulses for consumption, and you’ve accepted an invitation for lunch.

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So here he sits in the modernist dining room of Toca at the Ritz Carlton Toronto, being good while trying to not make it obvious that it takes some effort. Slowly and deliberately, he works through just over half of his generous portion of chilled yellow tomato soup topped with creme fraiche, at which point he pauses, allows the spoon to slip entirely into the flat bottom of the oversized bowl, pushes it away and offers a slight grin that says: You didn’t think I could stop, did you?

Sigmund Freud might have said we’re over-analyzing this moment, that sometimes a lunch is just a lunch. But when David Kirchhoff breaks bread – or rather, when he refuses the Siren call of its buttery, yeasty pleasures – the medium is also the message.

So as the bread is removed from the table by mutual agreement, he acknowledges it would have been a temptation if it had stayed. “I would have looked at it periodically,” he says. “For something like this (encounter), because I’m with someone else and I’m talking about Weight Watchers things, I’d have my game on enough.” Still, “If I was just with my wife and it was dinner and I was already, you know, into a glass of wine – the bread would be on the plate with a bit of butter on top.”

For Mr. Kirchhoff (pronounced ‘Kir-koff’) is not just the CEO of Weight Watchers, he is also one of its most high-profile members and success stories – albeit one who struggled for years. The company, too, is struggling, beset by declining enrolment in its programs and the proliferation of free weight-loss apps that compete with Weight Watchers’ own proprietary mobile offerings. Still, there are opportunities on the horizon – ones worth billions of dollars, perhaps – if the company continues its slow climb to clinically approved legitimacy within the health-care industry.

As a kid, Mr. Kirchhoff was skinny, gangly. But at age 32, when he went to the doctor for his first check-up in seven years, he was ashamed to discover he’d somehow ballooned to 242 pounds. For the next nine years, he struggled to get his weight under control, eventually hitting and holding at his goal weight of 203 pounds with the help of his company’s programs. And he is not just trim, but evidently fit too, exercising six or seven days a week, even on the road. (He was up this morning at 4:30, he says, to squeeze in a workout before his publicist picked him up at 6:30.)

We know all of this because Mr. Kirchhoff began sharing his personal tale on his blog, Man Meets Scale, in 2009, after he’d achieved success. That led to a self-help book published in the spring, a breezy read weighed down only by the oversized title Weight Loss Boss: How to Finally Win at Losing and Take Charge in an Out-of-Control Food World. The book paints him as likably neurotic and vulnerable, someone for whom merely opening up a carton of ice cream can prompt a “kind of narcotic effect.” Convinced that readers can draw inspiration from his struggle-and-triumph narrative, he writes: “I’m happy to be the comic relief in the drama of your self-reinvention.”

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