Weight Watchers is popular worldwide; it is easily the most recognizable program among today’s prolific diets. While some of us may be as far as six degrees away from Kevin Bacon, none of us are more than two degrees away from Weight Watchers. I know at least 127 people who are, or who have been, on the program.
In the following text I offer an overview of Weight Watchers, a list of its frequently cited pros and cons, and my subjective thoughts on it.
Overview of Weight Watchers
Weight Watchers was founded in 1963, by homemaker Jean Nidetch. Nidetch was a serial dieter who, in 1961, banded together with a number of her overweight friends to form a dieting support group. It was a success; her group quickly morphed into weekly classes, a sine qua non of the modern Weight Watchers approach. Nidetch incorporated in 1963, and in 1978, she sold to H. J. Heinz Company—an unlikely match-up, but then again ketchup purveyors have always been among the most protean organizations I guess.
For years, the core of the Weight Watchers infrastructure was a points-based currency system. Based on your weight, your height, physical activity, and other variables you would be allotted a certain amount of daily points. Foods were assigned point values, and you would spend your points on them accordingly. In example, you may have been allotted eighteen points daily. You could spend said currency on pizza which cost six to eight points per slice, or you could spend it on apples which cost one to two points each. The combination did not matter; you could eat whatever you wanted so long as you did not spend more points than you had. Ostensibly, your daily points allowance was set in such a way that you would put yourself in a moderate calorie deficit.
Today, Weight Watchers still uses a points currency structure; however, its classic system has been supplanted by its “Points Plus” program—a change that took place in 2010.
“With the old points system, you could use your points anyway you like. But we now know if you use your points wisely by eating foods rich in protein and fiber—these foods fill you up, keep hunger at bay, and help you lose weight in a healthier and more nutritious way,” says Weight Watchers Chief Science Officer, Karen Miller-Kovach, RD.
In the “Points Plus” structure, two foods with similar calories are not necessarily assigned the same point values like they were in the classic system. Protein and fiber-rich foods are now assigned fewer points than are equivalently caloric foods that contain simple carbs and unhealthy fats. This, theoretically, encourages participants to spend their “Points Plus” on healthier, more fulfilling foods. Another new aspect of “Points Plus” is that certain foods are considered free; they are not assigned point costs. You are allowed unlimited quantities of non-starchy vegetables and fresh fruit.
“Most adults don’t eat enough fruits or vegetables. So our strategy was to allow these as free foods to encourage more consumption of these super-nutritious foods that are among the lowest in calories and very filling,” Kovach says.
You can join the Weight Watchers community different ways. Most cities have centers where you can meet on a weekly basis with an instructor and program participants in a group setting. You can enroll in Weight Watchers online (there is a mobile app as well); or, you can do a combination of meetings and online. Whatever method you choose, encouragement, weight tracking materials, recipes, and more will be at your disposal. Prices vary based on services, but a range of $5 to $10 per week is generally the cost of membership.
Frequently Cited Pros and Cons of Weight Watchers
There are myriad pros and cons of Weight Watchers that are often cited:
- There are no forbidden foods. Weight Watchers is essentially an “all things in moderation” program.
- Weight Watchers promotes slow and controlled weight loss. “Points Plus” algorithms account for calorie deficits that allow you to lose one to two pounds per week—a very healthy loss rate.
- Nutrition education is provided both in Weight Watchers classes, and in online programs.
- You quickly learn portion control skills when on Weight Watchers. To accurately track and record “Points Plus” you are required to frequently measure food serving sizes.
- There is tremendous support in the Weight Watchers community. Between classes, the Weight Watchers website, social media, and third-party forums, encouragement is always a visit, click, or call away. Furthermore, many chain restaurants list “Points Plus” values on their menus.
- Weight Watchers is relatively expensive in that it has recurring fees. With costs ranging from $5 to $10 per week (sometimes more), you can expect to pay a minimum of $260 per year, a maximum in excess of $520.
- Some people find the shared experience of “meetings” a bit socially daunting. Moreover, you are required to weigh in to join a meeting. While weigh-ins are conducted privately, they are still sensitive for many.
- If the blogosphere and forums are a good barometer, it appears that Weight Watchers group meeting leaders come in a variety of intellectual flavors. You could be lucky and get a Linda Brown Buck; or, you may feel the ambsace of getting a Kardashian sister.
My Subjective Thoughts on Weight Watchers
I have never tried Weight Watchers so I cannot speak empirically on its efficacy. Judging it from the outside, I like that it is based on a foundation of portion control and “all things in moderation”; and, cursorily, it seems to me that its latest “Points Plus” reform is an improvement over its classic points system. Assigning the same point values to two calorically equal, yet nutritionally disparate foods (like the classic system did) seems enabling. Speaking of enabling, I distinctly recall a particular acquaintance of my mom and grandmother in the mid-eighties. She boasted a zeppelin shaped body, she wore pinkish yellow—sort of post beet consumption pee color—eyeliner in chunks the size of clock radios, and she donned the proverbial “old lady” perm. Every time I saw her it was in a large group setting in which food was involved; and, without fail, she always had some plate of gelatinous confection in hand. “It’s okay, I am on Weight Watchers, and I have the points for this …,” she would say when social acceptance looked at her quizzically for feeding her sweets addiction. “Oh … she is on Weight Watchers, no worries than …,” others would then say. She was on Weight Watchers all through the eighties—I would guess she is still on it—yet, “surprisingly,” her weight always remained constant.
I am not a fan of highly structured diet programs in general. However, if I ever needed a weight loss program, and if I was forced to select one of the mass marketed plans, Weight Watchers would probably be the one I would choose. “Portion control” and “everything in moderation” are two principles I can align myself with.