The talk was typical of most weight loss programs - calorie counting, sugar addiction and the tastiness of flavorless rice cakes. Successful dieters offered testimonials, and before and after photographs were displayed.
But during the orientation of the PRISM weight loss program Tuesday evening at Columbia's Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, the 18 participants also discussed one distinguishing nuance: PRISM is a Christian-oriented national weight loss program founded in 1990 by three women.
So, along with low-calorie menus, dieters are given workbooks with daily lessons of suggested biblical readings to help them muster the "God-given strength" to lose weight and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
"The founders incorporated elements of what they consider effective for successful weight loss," said group leader Kathleen Schneider. "They were battling weight and felt Jesus was an important part of that."
Based in Visalia, Calif., the company operates nine groups in Maryland. The program aims "to see people transformed from inside out," like the light that enters a prism and is transformed into a beautiful rainbow, the "symbol of God's covenant," said co-founder and President Toni L. Vogt on a video during the 90-minute orientation.
"The three of us found that our relationship with Jesus Christ, through our weight loss process, has been stronger. We will not try to change you [religiously], just make more of what is already there."
Despite its orientation, the program does not exclude non-Christians. "Any transformation that is lasting ... will ultimately include God," states the program's introductory packet. "However the workbook lessons are for everyone."
PRISM is divided into optional six-week phases. Each phase costs $45. Women are limited to 1,000 to 1,200 calories a day, while men may eat 1,300 to 1,500 calories. Refined sugar - unless it is the fifth ingredient in a product - and enriched flour are prohibited.
Phases of change
The first phase is the most restrictive, but more food choices are added with each phase. "I've had people say this is like being on Lent," Schneider said.
Dieters must keep a daily food journal. They also are given notebooks with optional Bible readings to reflect on their food addiction. Schneider also reads biblical verses or other inspirational readings aloud.
In the fifth phase, participants are given a journal for writing daily reflections based on Christian readings, or they may choose their own inspirational reading.
But the deal breaker for some is a signed resolution to follow the food guide "without any deviation" or dropout. "There are no cheating points," Schneider said. "You have a choice to have faith in God and go forward. If you are not able to do this, this may not be the right program for you."
Tamarah Nuttle is considering joining to make a "lifestyle change" with her husband, Fred. "We want to get into healthier food," said Nuttle, 45, a Columbia educator. "The spirituality is a plus."
Schneider joined PRISM in 1998 after speaking with a participant who lost 90 pounds in a now-defunct group in Ellicott City. "I've been fat my whole life," said Schneider, 49, a Columbia nuclear engineer. "I was raised Catholic, but I really didn't have hope there was any help for me. The part that spoke to me is that we haven't incorporated Jesus into our journey."
Nine months later, Schneider, who at 5-feet-2 weighed 258 pounds, joined. After 80 weeks, she reached her goal of 124 pounds in June 2000. "This program has been a miracle," she said. "But I did research on addicts. I will have to take it one day at a time for the rest of my life."
Two years ago, Schneider was asked to form a new group by those unable to attend the one in Ellicott City. "The program is open to everyone," she said. "There's certainly a religious overtone, but we're not out to make you a Christian. But I don't make any apologies either."
About 65 people have attended so far. "Not everyone reached their goal, but everyone lost weight," Schneider said.
Since joining last year, Ryan McKay has lost 70 pounds and plans to lose 42 more. "This is helping me understand why I've overeaten so much," said McKay, 37, a Columbia architect. "I was looking for something in inanimate objects - food - that Jesus Christ can only give - love, comfort, a friend who will always be there.
"Food lasts for only as long as you're eating. I found that eating the way God intended - naturally and in moderation - is more satisfying."
The PRISM weight loss group will meet at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through April 1 at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Columbia's Wilde Lake Interfaith Center. Information: 301-596-2153, 800-755-1738 or www.pwlp.com.