10/31/2011 01:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Weight Watchers CEO: How To Form Healthy Habits In 'Obesogenic' Environment

Watching a lean David Kirchhoff take the stage at the recent TedMed conference to talk obesity prevention, it was difficult to imagine the Weight Watchers CEO was ever a customer. But he was indeed -- a man who at his heaviest weighed 40 pounds more than he does today and who, at just 33, was being counseled to consider cholesterol-lowering drugs.

We caught up with the business man who talked to us about the sweeping implications of the obesity epidemic and dished about his personal healthy habits, as well as his diet pitfalls.

You've talked about the key distinction between healthy habits and discipline. What does that actually mean?

There is too much emphasis placed on this notion of will-power and discipline and not enough on establishing healthy habits. The difference between healthy habits and discipline is that a habit is something you don't have to think about doing. You do something enough, you're disciplined about it, and you put in the time. Eventually you don't have to think about it. It's routine.

Like ... ?

I have been maintaining my weight loss now for the better part of four years. An example of how I do this is that I now have a healthy breakfast every morning without thinking about it. Having a healthy breakfast is something that I believe will now always stick with me, because it's a part of who I am. Similar to having a healthy breakfast, exercise is very much of an embedded habit for me -- I have my routine. I put my clothes out at night, I put my sugar free Redbull out, and when that alarm goes off at 5 in the morning, after glaring at it, I get up and go.

Wait, you drink Redbull?

It's sugar free!

So what can people do to get to that good habit stage?

One way I think about it is to pick three areas you want to change and really focus on those. You have to put in the time to make new habits stick, and you can't tackle everything at once. One of my tough remaining bad habits is mindless eating after dinner. I end up in the kitchen at night and I'm grazing and I know I'm not hungry -- I'm not hungry! -- so I am working to take steps to find a way to control it. I've been tweeting about it all week in a seven-day personal challenge. And it’s working so far!

So your company isn't exactly known for concern about broader, public health. Why the shift?

Back when Weight Watchers was founded in 1963, it was really personal issues that were driving why people were interested in losing weight. The connection between obesity and health is a relatively new phenomenon. In the last few years, it's like a deafening roar.

From our perspective, getting people to address weight and lifestyle issues for the right reasons feels better. It feels better because it is. It's important. That's why we're constantly talking about short, near-term goals, like losing 10 percent [of your weight] as a key milestone, because that's where there are the most obvious health implications in conditions like diabetes, but also cardiovascular disease, hip and knee replacements...

Yeah, but not everyone is thinking about heart health when they're looking to shed pounds.

Why does the average consumer want to lose weight? Some do it for health reasons, and some do it for personal reasons -- they want to look better and feel better -- and there's nothing wrong with that. Whatever motivates you to grab control can be helpful, as long as over-emphasis on body image doesn't go overboard.

You've said that obesity is a chronic condition, and it's never cured. Isn't that kind of a bummer?

It's true. For most people with a weight issue, the challenges of adopting a healthier lifestyle never really go away. It’s something that takes time, effort, awareness and focus. That has certainly been the case for me. It is inevitable that many people will periodically fall back on less healthy habits. Life gets in the way, and we are in an "obesogenic" environment that constantly challenges us. Therefore, the emphasis needs to be providing people with the tools and environmental changes that allow them to improve their odds of success in making a healthier lifestyle stick.

Ultimately, each person needs to own their own health and their lifestyle. I talk about that a lot. I own my healthy habits, and I own my weight loss. It’s not anybody else’s. Weight Watchers provided me with the tools that helped me get there, but my success -- and my slip-ups -- are ultimately my own.