Weight Watchers

Definition

Weight Watchers is the largest commercial weight-loss program in the world. At the end of September 2017, it had 3.4 million subscribers. The weight-loss program is based on calorie and portion control while eating regular food, along with regular exercise and behavior modification.

In the late 2010s, Weight Watchers International was transforming itself into a long-term life coaching platform, acknowledging the current thinking that short-term diets are not a long-term solution to lifelong weight problems and that to keep weight off, members need to permanently change their habits. The company no longer uses the word “diet” and tries to instead promote physical and emotional well-being. The company wants people to feel that they can maintain their behavior for life instead of being imprisoned in a harsh diet.




Weight Watchers products.





Weight Watchers products.
(Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Origins

The Weight Watchers program was started in 1961 by Jean Nidetch, a housewife in Queens, New York. Nidetch wanted to lose weight and attended a diet clinic sponsored by the New York City Board of Health. After she had lost about 20 pounds (10 kg), she found it hard to remain motivated to stay on the diet. Her solution was to ask a group of friends to come to her house and talk about their eating and dieting challenges. This group evolved into a regular support group. While attending this group, Nidetch had the insight that dieting was not just about food but about changing behaviors.

Two years later, Nidetch established Weight Watchers as a company and held her first public meeting. Demand for her program far exceeded expectations. Over the years, the program evolved to incorporate new research in nutrition. Behavior management modules and an exercise program were added. In 1978, the company was bought by the H. J. Heinz Company, which added a line of Weight Watchers supermarket foods. Today, Weight Watchers–endorsed cookbooks, workouts, convenience foods, a magazine, and online support groups all are available to Weight Watchers members.

Description

The fundamental message of the Weight Watchers program is “move more, eat less.” There is nothing unique about this approach to dieting, but what distinguishes the Weight Watchers program are the tools it provides members to stay motivated to meet these goals.

The traditional Weight Watchers method involved attending weekly Weight Watchers meetings. The meetings are still a strong selling point even though Weight Watchers has expanded heavily into the online marketplace. In the 2010s, more than 48,000 meetings were held in Weight Watchers centers, churches, hospitals, and workplaces each week in 30 different countries. Meetings last about 50 minutes and are led by a trained Weight Watchers member who has lost weight using the program and has successfully kept the weight off.

Weightwatchers.com

Upon registering, members set their first goal as losing 10% of their body weight. Once this goal is reached, a final weight goal is selected based on the individual's height, age, and gender.

Weight Watchers has traditionally assigned points to foods. The points values of given foods are available in an online database. Points calculators let members calculate the point value of any food based on nutrition information on the product's label. Members are allowed a certain number of points per day, which makes it simple for them to track their overall consumption of calories. They may eat anything they wish so long as they stay within their allotted points. In reality, to follow the plan customers must select low-calorie options—lean meats, lots of fruits and vegetables, and reasonable helpings of carbohydrates. Points are designed to accommodate an occasional treat.

In 2018, the company listed over 200 foods that had no point values at all, which customers were allowed to eat in unlimited quantities. These zero-point foods included shellfish, chicken breasts, and eggs. This move was intended to make it easier for customers to measure and track their intake.

Weight Watchers meetings

Every Weight Watchers meeting has a behavioral module. These modules help dieters uncover harmful behaviors and suggest ways to correct them. For instance, one module may deal with eating in response to stress. Others might focus on how to handle people who want to sabotage your diet, the challenges of eating out, handling holiday meals, fitting exercise into daily life, or overcoming feelings of low self-worth. These topics are presented by the leader and are often supported with short worksheets or take-away information. Members are encouraged to share their experiences and make suggestions for solutions that are then summarized and reinforced by the leader. The company's social media platform allows customers to feel that they are part of the community when they are away from the group. Customers enjoy trading weight-loss stories and advice, and community membership keeps them in Weight Watchers longer.

Motivation is a big part of the Weight Watchers program. At every in-person meeting, each member is privately weighed, and the weight is recorded. Even small successes are celebrated. Members receive recognition for every 5 pounds (2 kg) of weight loss, along with larger recognition for attending 16 weekly meetings (the number Weight Watchers says is needed to change behavior), losing 10% of their body weight, and reaching their goal weight. Lifetime membership is conferred on individuals who reach their goal weight and stay at or below that weight for at least six weeks. Lifetime members may attend meetings free so long as they weigh in at no more than 2 pounds (1 kg) above their goal weight. If their weight is out of that range, they pay the weekly meeting fee but never have to pay a registration fee once they have achieved Lifetime status.

Daily exercise is strongly encouraged at Weight Watchers, but it is not a required part of the program. Individuals who exercise can earn extra points to spend on food if they wish. Walking is strongly encouraged, and Weight Watchers sells branded pedometers to encourage walkers to gradually increase their walking activity to 10,000 steps a day (about five miles). Some motivational exercises involve group tracking of physical activity. For example, one group may set a challenge to walk a certain number of steps in a specified time frame.

Function

Weight Watchers is a calorie- and portion-controlled diet plan that is intended to change individuals' eating and exercise habits for a lifetime. Weight Watchers uses nutrition education, behavior modification, and motivational psychology to help members achieve their goals.

One of Weight Watchers International's goals in 2018 was to keep customers for a longer period of time. This was part of the company's rationale behind rebranding itself as a lifestyle brand instead of just a diet program. If customers hold long-term subscriptions, the company makes more money, but the program is also meant to be better for the customers; lifelong attention to food intake will give them better overall health and well-being. In the past, customers would often join Weight Watchers long enough to achieve a weight loss goal and then quit. After ending their diets and resuming their old habits, they would regain the weight and end up joining Weight Watchers again. The company hopes to help people avoid this destructive cycle of yo-yo dieting and instead keep them healthy for life.

Benefits

Some benefits of the Weight Watchers program include:

The Weight Watchers program is not for everyone. Some people find the group meetings uncomfortable. However, many dieters who do attend the same meeting week after week develop relationships with other members and a sense of accountability to the group that motivates them to stay on the diet.

Precautions

Weight Watchers does not accept children under the age of 10 or pregnant women. Children and adolescents under the age of 17 must present written medical permission to join the program. Teens and breastfeeding women must agree to follow a special plan to meet their dietary needs. Weight Watchers will not accept anyone whose weight is within 5 pounds (2.3 kg) of the lowest weight in their goal range, nor does it accept people with a diagnosis of bulimia nervosa. The Weight Watchers program is not intended to treat or cure any particular disease or disorder.

People who are obese or with any existing health conditions should talk to their doctors before starting an exercise program.

KEY TERMS
Calorie—
A unit of food energy. In nutrition terms, the word calorie is used instead of the scientific term kilocalorie that represents the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one liter of water by one degree centigrade at sea level. In nutrition, a calorie of food energy refers to a kilocalorie and is therefore equal to 1,000 true calories of energy.
Carbohydrate—
A macronutrient that the body uses as an energy source. A carbohydrate provides four calories of energy per gram.
Cholesterol—
A waxy substance made by the liver and also acquired through diet.
Diabetes—
A condition in which the body either does not make or cannot respond to the hormone insulin. As a result, the body cannot use glucose (sugar).
Dietary supplement—
A product, such as a vitamin, mineral, herb, amino acid, or enzyme, that is intended to be consumed in addition to an individual's diet with the expectation that it will improve health.
Insulin—
A hormone made in the pancreas that is essential for the metabolism of carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins, and that regulates blood sugar levels and stores glucose as fat.
Insulin resistance—
A state in which the body does not respond well to insulin, resulting in the pancreas producing ever-higher levels of insulin when carbohydrates enter the body.
Mineral—
An inorganic substance found in the earth that is necessary in small quantities for the body to maintain health. Examples: zinc, copper, iron.
Type 2 diabetes—
Sometimes called adult-onset diabetes, this disease prevents the body from properly using glucose (sugar), but can often be controlled with diet and exercise.
Vitamin—
A nutrient that the body needs in small amounts to remain healthy but that the body cannot manufacture for itself and must acquire through diet.
Yo-yo dieting—
Repeatedly dieting to lose weight and regaining the weight after resuming former eating habits.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR DOCTOR
  • Do I have any health conditions that might affect my participation in this diet?
  • Do you know of a Weight Watchers meeting place in this area?
  • Do you have any experience with the long-term success of this diet?
  • What is a reasonable weight-loss goal for me?
  • Is it safe for me to exercise more frequently or more vigorously?

Risks

Individuals who are under treatment for an illness, taking prescription drugs, or on a therapeutic diet (e.g., low-sodium diet, gluten-free diet) should consult with their doctor about the Weight Watchers plan and follow any changes or modifications the physician may make to the plan. Failure to do so can increase the risk of health complications.

Research and general acceptance

Of all the commercial diet plans, Weight Watchers is the plan that is most enthusiastically accepted by the medical community. In its 2017 diet review, U.S. News & World Report ranked Weight Watchers the easiest diet to follow, the best commercial diet, and the fourth best diet for weight loss. The program has been in existence for over 50 years, and many independent studies have confirmed that it is a safe and effective way to lose weight. In comparison studies, members who attend Weight Watchers meetings lose more weight than those who join the program but do not go to meetings; this is thought to be due to the feelings of camaraderie and accountability invoked in the meeting setting. The Weight Watchers plan also compares favorably to other diet plans in terms of total weight loss and maintenance of weight loss. The Weight Watchers plan does not address specific health issues, such as lowering blood pressure or cholesterol levels, but adherence to the diet and any resulting weight loss will help to promote overall health.

See also Obesity .

Resources

BOOKS

Croft, Lara. Weight Watchers 2018. Amazon Digital Services, 2017.

Fung, Jason, and Jimmy Moore. The Complete Guide to Fasting: Heal Your Body through Intermittent, Alternate-Day, and Extended Fasting. Las Vegas, NV: Victory Belt Publishing, 2016.

Josefberg, Liz, and Jennifer Hudson. Target 100: The World's Simplest Weight-Loss Program in 6 Easy Steps. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, 2017.

Nidetch, Jean. The Jean Nidetch Story: An Autobiography. New York: Weight Watchers Publishing Group, 2009.

Watkins, Christine, ed. Can Diets Be Harmful? Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2011.

Weight Watchers. Weight Watchers Eat! Move! Play!: A Parent's Guide for Raising Healthy, Happy Kids. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2010.

Weight Watchers. Weight Watchers New Complete Cookbook. 4th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2012.

Young, Anthony. Weight Watchers Freestyle 2018. Amazon Digital Services, 2018.

PERIODICALS

Ahern, Amy L., et al. “Weight Watchers on Prescription: An Observational Study of Weight Change among Adults Referred to Weight Watchers by the NHS.” BMC Public Health 11 (June 2011): 434. http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/1471-2458-11-434 (accessed January 20, 2018).

Baetge, Claire, et al. “Efficacy of a Randomized Trial Examining Commercial Weight-Loss Programs and Exercise on Metabolic Syndrome in Overweight and Obese Women.” Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism 42, no. 2 (2017): 216–27. http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/10.1139/apnm-2016-0456#.WmUSqUtG08x (accessed January 20, 2018).

Byron, Ellen. “Forget Diets, Weight Watchers Wants You for Life.” Wall Street Journal. January 17, 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/weight-watchers-never-wants-to-say-goodbye-1516199456 (accessed January 20, 2018).

David, Meredith, and Kelly L. Haws. “Saying ‘No’ to Cake or ‘Yes’ to Kale: Approach and Avoidance Strategies in Pursuit of Health Goals.” Psychology and Marketing 33, no. 8 (2016): 588.

Jebb, Susan A., et al. “Primary Care Referral to a Commercial Provider for Weight Loss Treatment versus Standard Care: A Randomised Controlled Trial.” The Lancet 378, no. 9801 (2011): 1485–92. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(11)61344-5 (accessed January 20, 2018).

Barnosky A. R., K. K. Hoddy, et al. “Intermittent Fasting vs. Daily Calorie Restriction for Type 2 Diabetes Prevention: A Review of Human Findings.” Translational Research 164, no. 4 (October 2014):302–11.

Clifton, P. “Assessing the Evidence for Weight-Loss Strategies in People with and without Type 2 Diabetes.” World Journal of Diabetes 8, no. 10 (October 15, 2017): 440–54.

WEBSITES http://abcnews.go.com/Health/weight-watchers-effective-diet/story?id=14465015 (accessed January 20, 2018).

WeightWatchers.com . https://www.weightwatchers.com/us/ (accessed January 20, 2018).

“Weight Watchers Diet.” U.S. News & World Report: Health. http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/weight-watchers-diet (accessed January 20, 2018).

ORGANIZATIONS

Weight Watchers, (800) 651-6000, http://www.weightwatchers.com .

Weight Watchers UK, Millennium House, Ludlow Rd., Maidenhead, Berkshire, SL6 2SL, UK, uk.help@weightwatchers.co.uk, http://www.weightwatchers.co.uk .

Revised by Tish Davidson, AM
Revised by Amy Hackney Blackwell, PhD

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.