NEW ORLEANS -- People across Louisiana say this weekly support group is encouraging them to lose weight in a caring environment. But they say the best part is it's affordable.

The gathering begins with a pledge.

'I am an intelligent person. I will control my emotions and not let my emotions control me. Every time I am tempted to use food to satisfy my frustrated desires or build up my injured ego or dull my senses, I will remember even though I overeat in private, my excess poundage is there for all the world to see. But I will take off pounds sensibly,' the group says out loud in unison.

They stand together, holding hands getting the support of strangers, who understand the challenges they face in their goal to lose weight.

'It was getting close to Christmastime and I didn't have any clothes that fit and I was way up there, and I was a crying and a carrying on,' said TOPS Client Uldine Tracy, who lost 40 pounds when she first joined the group.

'After my husband died, I needed something to try and make myself feel better and I thought food was going to make me feel better, but it did just the opposite,' said Carol Uhle, who is also a TOPS Client in the Kenner group meeting. She has lost 15 to 20 pounds.

'I figured I couldn't do it by myself, that I needed some support and the group have been very helpful in that,' said Richard Machado, a TOPS Client who has lost 50 pounds.

The group is called TOPS, short for Take Off Pounds Sensibly. Friends started the 62-year-old support group at a kitchen table in Milwaukee. It's now in four countries with 10,000 chapters.

Members in Louisiana range from 7 to 90 years old. They like that it is non-profit, inexpensive, only $86 a year, as well as being accountable to people in an encouraging, caring environment.

'It gets us excited just to know that somebody's praising us because a lot of us don't get that praise or recognition in our home,' said Donna Hebert, the TOPS Louisiana state coordinator from Choctaw.

And there is lots of praise, cheering and clapping in the meetings. There are gifts and recognition for losers of the week and month and year. There are graduations and skits and statewide rallies. Top losers earn the title of king and queen. There's a workbook with professional advice and guest speakers such as nutritionists and doctors come at times to share their expertise.

A local doctor, who is a former chef, runs a healthful eating and exercise site called He thinks tops works.

'I love this program and people lose weight on this program,' said Tulane Internist Dr. Timothy Harlan. 'There's no doubt that social interaction and social network, what we now call social networking, is beneficial for weight loss.'

He likes that TOPS uses the food exchange program, because it brings people back to talking about food in general and not carbs, fats and protein.

'An exchange is basically a slice of whole wheat toast is the same as a half of a bagel, which is the same as a small bowl of yogurt or a bowl of cereal,' he said.

At regular weigh-ins, there is a lot of cheering and clapping, but the total weight is never shared, only the number of pounds lost or gained.

'The science supports that people who weigh in on a regular basis are able to control their weight better and if they've lost weight, if they continue to weigh in on a regular basis, they kept the weight off better. So regular weigh-in is good,' said obesity and exercise expert, Dr. Melinda Sothern, of the LSUHSC School of Public Health.

A study in the journal Obesity shows people who stay in TOPS lost 6 percent of their weight in year one and maintained it for three years. Those who stopped coming gained it back.

'When I first joined I lost 70 pounds. I joined for the reason because my son and my oldest daughter were getting ready to graduate and then I got in an accident and gained all the weight back,' said Hebert about her weight, which has yo-yoed over the years.

'The problem with all weight loss programs they work well for obesity because obesity is a chronic disease, when you do them in a chronic way. So if you join a program and you're in it for 10 weeks and you lose weight and then you say, 'I'm done. I don't need to be in this program any more,' you're going to gain it back,' Sothern said.

She said while support is good, new science shows each person inherits different, powerful brain and digestive hormones. And that evidence has taken our treatment knowledge beyond support groups alone.

'It's never just an emotional eating problem. It's a combination of their inability to say 'no' to food when it's presented in front of them and/or to stop eating when they started eating. But that's all related to neurochemicals, maybe some genetic predisposition, maybe even something that happened to them when they were a baby that altered their metabolism,' Sothern said.

She said obesity is very complex with no cure. Lifetime management may require a behavior expert who understands that you can't just be motivated to lose weight, but motivated rather to do something very hard, make behavioral changes.

'The first thing you're going to have to do is change the way your family eats in the home. And the only way to do that is change the way the home is set up. You're going to have to take the TV trays and the TV tables out of the living room. That's an environmental change because that's a cue to overeat. You're going to have to gradually replace all the unhealthy foods in your pantry and your kitchen with healthy foods,' Sothern said.

And Harlan said to change eating behavior, you must plan each meal in advance then write what you ate down. Those two steps are proven to work.

'We know that people lose weight when they use food diaries at a much higher rate,' Harlan said. 'In fact, there's a really great piece of research recently where people use their cell phones to just keep a food diary with their cell phone. They just take a picture of their food.'

A food diary is used in TOPS, and is helping some people reach their goals.

'I lost 50 pounds in 2004,' said client Iretha Harbey who goes to the Kenner meeting.

The experts also say nutrition and exercise counseling also helps people manage chronic obesity long-term.

For the chapter near you call: 1-800-932-8677 or visit

There is also a KOPS program, Keep Off Pounds Sensibly, for those who went to TOPS and reached their goal and now want to maintain their weight.

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