Weight Watchers

I have an arm of my business that consults with Fitness Professionals to help them understand what's "really" going on in this field.  A question recently came in from a trainer asking about Weight Watchers.  Since I receive so many questions about the Weight Watchers program, I thought posting the Q&A would help provide clarity, not only for trainers, but for anyone seeking a sound weight loss program.

I frequently run into clients who are willing to exercise with me and who want to "do" weight watchers because "it has worked for them in the past."  I know very little about Weight Watchers except that the members regularly weigh in (encouraging the use of the scale as THE measurement of success) and they use some sort of point system within which it seems the member can eat ANYTHING, including sugar. As a result, I never know how to respond.  Can you clarify the Weight Watchers technology for me; i.e., on what are the points based, how do they account for appropriate amounts of carbs, protein, fat, etc.


ANSWER: Weight Watchers may very well have been the first effectively marketed diet program aimed at the masses.  The popularity of Weight Watchers about 40 years ago actually introduced most Americans to a word they never knew, and most still don’t understand.  The calorie.  The reason it received such high public acclaim, aside from the number of pounds lost without drastic deprivation as in previous diets, is because Weight Watchers presents the premise of “a lifestyle change.”

 The founder of Weight Watchers, Jean Nidetch, started the program in her home in Brooklyn back in 1963 where she instituted a real world sensible eating program that focuses on cutting back on calories.  She didn’t however distinguish between the different effects sugar calories, fat calories, quality protein calories, and complex carb calories bring about in the human body.  She also failed to incorporate the “thermic effect” of eating supportively.

 Weight Watchers has modified its recommendations since its first inception, and while far more lifestyle information is now disseminated by the organization, the overall effectiveness of calorie deprivation remains unchanged.  As I’m sure you recognize, if “it worked for them in the past,” yet they’re seeking out a NEW solution, it didn’t work for them in the long term.

 Originally Weight Watchers developed an “exchange” system, where you were allotted a certain number of “bread exchanges,” “fruit exchanges,” etc. every day, a concept later re-invented by Richard Simmons' “Deal a Meal.”  The exchanges were based upon portion control limiting the amount of calories being ingested while still encouraging eating of real food.  As their exposure brought greater profits, they decided to implement “weight watchers foods,” further increasing their profit margins by now having their followers buy meals as well as support.  The exchange system allowed for snacking, as long as you limited your daily intake to the food exchanges suggested.  Their new approach brings with it some modifications.  They’ve replaced the exchanges with “points.”  Now, every food is assigned a number of points based on its fat, fiber, and calorie content.  There are various categories so you can choose a “point system” that works for you.

 Conceptually this sounds great, but the reality is, you’re still changing your lifestyle to one that cuts calories, you are ingesting, if you prefer, some sugar laden foods (while limiting points in other areas), and cravings and metabolic slowdown are a given.

 If something positive is to be said for any diet, Weight Watchers is one that I can actually find some kind words for.  I don’t believe their entry into the marketplace was based upon a fraudulent attempt to collect money from weight loss hopefuls without delivering value.  While the diet is flawed, I believe it’s developers and operators believe they are involved in an ethical and beneficial pursuit.

 Of course, what they fail to answer is why, if their diet is so “successful,” so many people "return" to Weight Watchers.  I’ve attended Weight Watchers meetings.  They’re almost comical.  14 or 15 women sit around in a room, lending each other support, and some make the journey to . . . the scale!  They take off their jewelry, remove their shoes, peel off a sweater, and exhale, then they step up.  A facilitator examines the measurement, refers to a chart, and announces, “Mary lost 1.25 pounds” and the room erupts in applause.  Interestingly, nobody’s there for the first time.  They’ve all “come back” after regaining the weight.  Weight Watchers, although they can document substantial pounds being shed, maintains the same abysmal failure rate as the other commercial diet programs.

 The new Weight Watchers has also integrated lots of psychology into their attempts at initiating adherence.  They offer such pearls as, “Start thinking of food in terms of nutritional and economical value. If you’re tempted to get a second serving of Chinese just because it's free, think ahead to the high costs in health bills and low self-esteem that an unhealthy diet results in.”  Again, with good intentions being recognized, I see an instant flaw in telling people to stop thinking of food as enjoyment.  We live in a society where every social outing, every celebratory event, is focused around food.  I’ve found it’s far better to teach people to eat and exercise in a manner that speeds metabolism, allowing you to enjoy a good amount of food, and even the less supportive food on occasion without consequence.

 They also address the theory that people gain weight because they overeat, and they overeat because they feel as if the foods offer reward.  In that vain, they suggest you find other ways to reward yourself.  These include renting comedy videos, having coffee with a friend, singing, or taking a bath.  Let’s get real.  If you’re craving cheesecake, you can sit in the tub with the TV blasting a comedy video while you drink coffee and you’re still wanting that cheesecake!

 Their appeal is vast, and their promise is legitimate. “Stick with your Daily Points and you will lose weight.”  If, however, a diet is based on long term deprivation, calorie restriction, and inclusion for frequent sugar allowances, you can rest assured very few will “stick” with their Daily Points for the duration.  This brings about that all too familiar self-blame, where people feel guilt for their perceived lack of willpower.  The fact that the program is marketed as “easy” further stimulates self indictment when people inevitably “fall off.”  Once your clients begin to understand precisely why calorie deprivation failed them in the long term, and come to appreciate the metabolic advantages you can offer them, they should open up to eating supportively.  As a final note, Weight Watchers presently “sees” about 600,000 people per week!  There’s a vast market out there, all failing, all blaming themselves, and all in desperate need of your help!  If you begin by introducing Weight Watchers followers to supportive exercise, and then, a little at a time, provide education as to how they can modify their nutritional approach, given a bit of time you should win them over.

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