Remember back in January when I joined Weight Watchers? It was required for a project I was doing in class about popular diets. The assignment was to research the diet, go on the diet for a minimum of a week, and report back to the class on why this diet is so popular and what is good or bad about it.
I concluded that Weight Watchers has some really good components and some that are not so good. The history of the diet was particularly interesting. A woman named Jean Nidetch founded Weight Watchers in the 1960s. She struggled with her weight for many years and finally participated in a weight loss program through a hospital and lost 20 pounds. She wanted to continue the weight loss but was feeling some of her old cravings returning. So, she called a group of her overweight friends and asked them to come over. They shared their weight loss stories, talked about recipe ideas, and gave one another support. The meetings became a regular occurrence, and were so helpful that Jean decided to rent out a public space to accommodate more people. She posted a few flyers, and rented out a classroom that sat 40. When she arrived, over 400 people were lined up for the meeting! She welcomed them into the room in groups of 40, and meetings were held all day long. Pretty cool, right?
Some of the positive components of the diet, based on my research, include the weekly meetings and supportive environment; healthy recommendation of about 2 pounds of weight loss per week; weight loss tools were readily available either online or in hard copy, depending on what works for you; recipe books seemed to be helpful for many; and their signature “points system” was fairly easy to use.
However, there were definitely some negatives. Weight Watchers became a public company in 2001 and, like all companies, needs to make money. They have a very strong marketing department and use this to their advantage. They advertise with phrases like “Eat all the foods you love” and “Choose any food, as long as you control how much you eat.” And while they do educate participants in meetings about the benefits of eating lots of fruits and vegetables, they also sell many branded processed foods. These include things like muffins, sponge cakes, granola and energy bars, shakes, frozen meals and soups. I attended one meeting and was shocked when, at the conclusion of the meeting, 25 people lined up to purchase things like WW branded bars, shakes and cakes. I mean, we had just spent the last 45 minutes talking about the importance of eating nutrient-dense foods!
One example I gave in class was this: Let’s say you are hungry and want a snack. You decide to have a 3-point snack. According to the food reference guide, 1 gram of almonds is 3 points. I would consider this a very healthy, sensible snack. However, 1 Weight Watchers brand blueberry muffin is 2 points and 1 Weight Watchers brand lemon cake is 1 point. So, you could ditch the almonds and have 1 blueberry muffin AND 1 lemon cake for 3 points. Most people would go for the muffin/cake combo without thinking twice! And this is a little scary, considering these are highly processed foods, and sugar is the first ingredient in the lemon cake and the second ingredient in the muffins. These foods do not support weight loss and instead they actually interfere with proper metabolism of fat and raise blood sugar levels, which will lead to cravings and possibly overeating later in the day.
I talked to a lot of people who have tried Weight Watchers (thank you to all the PWN readers who provided me with such valuable information about your personal experiences on the diet!). Most said that they lost some initial weight, but then hit a wall or even started gaining it back. There was general agreement that WW does not do enough training on how to make these habits a lifestyle after the weight is off. The emphasis is on weight loss but not necessarily long-term health. This leads to people losing weight on the diet, but then slowly gaining it back and signing up for another round of meetings. As a company, this benefits WW because their customers keep returning. Could this be why they fail to provide adequate training for maintaining the weight loss? Who knows, but something to think about.
The last thing that I didn’t really agree with was WW’s emphasis on foods labeled “low-fat,” “fat-free” or “sugar-free”. There was also not a lot of talk about food quality: freshness, organic, local, etc. As you all know, I place a lot of value on fresh, local, whole foods. Something that has been labeled as reduced fat or sugar immediately tells me it has been processed, and is therefore not a whole food. I’d rather have one of my future clients eating fresh peanut butter they made at home, complete with the fats that are in peanuts, then a reduced-sugar or reduced-fat peanut butter that is highly processed from the grocery store. WW would disagree with me. Just a difference in approach to health, but something to keep in mind.
For people who are more educated in nutrition and the importance of high quality foods, I think the WW points system can be a helpful way to track food intake and lose weight. However for others, I think the diet can lead people to foods that are not supportive of a balanced body. Overall it was really interesting learning about the diet. It is so widely used and a very successful company, and I am thankful I had the opportunity to try it out. I hope it will help me relate better to future clients and understand some of the things they’ve tried or been taught on their weight loss journeys.