Weight Watchers Under the Spotlight
By Dietitian, Juliette Kellow BSc RD
UPDATE: Weight Watchers launched ProPoints in November 2010. A new take on the old points system, marketed as a 'New Approach' for 2013, WW claim they ‘fit around real life’. Read our review.
Weight Watchers is undoubtedly one of the biggest names in the world of slimming, with 10 million Brits walking through the doors of their nearest meeting in the last decade.
And it’s not just us mere mortals who are prepared to hand over hard-earned cash to shift those excess pounds. A whole host of celebrities, including Patsy Kensit, Gregg Wallace, Coleen McLoughlin, Claire Sweeney, Natasha Hamilton, Jenny McCarthy and Sheree Murphy, have all reportedly followed the Weight Watchers diets to shape up and slim down.
The concept of Weight Watchers began in the early ‘60s when overweight housewife Jean Nidetch, invited friends to her New York home to discuss how to lose weight. They joined her in following a diet recommended by Jean’s dietitian and began meeting regularly to discuss how they were getting on. As the group expanded, Jean joined forces with businessman Al Lippert and Weight Watchers was born.
More than 40 years on, Weight Watchers International claims to have helped millions of people around the world to lose weight. Last year alone, 6,500 meetings were held in the UK each week – around 25 percent more than a decade ago.
But ironically, as the Weight Watchers emporium continues to grow, so too, do our waistlines. The question is, can Weight Watchers really help us lose weight and more importantly, keep it off?
How does Weight Watchers work?
Weight Watchers effectively promotes a reduced-calorie, low-fat diet, to encourage weight loss. The Weight Watchers programme is called Switch and consists of two different diets:
- The Points Plan – this allows you to eat and drink anything you like as long as you stick to a daily Points allowance.
- The Core Plan – this allows you to eat from a set list of healthy or ‘Core’ foods. There’s no limit on quantity – you simply eat until you feel comfortable. You also have a weekly Points allowance for treats.
Tell me more about the Weight Watchers Point System
Every food and drink has a Points value. Points are calculated according to the calorie and saturated fat content of foods and the portion size. However, the exact formula used is kept a closely guarded secret by Weight Watchers. As a guideline though, the more calories a product contains, the higher its Points value. With the Point system, you simply add up the Points values of the foods you eat and drink in a day and make sure you don’t go over your daily Points allowance.
So how do I know how many Points I’m allowed?
Your group leader will advise you on this at your first meeting. Alternatively, if you become an online member of Weight Watchers, you’ll be advised on the number of Points you should have each day after entering your personal details. Your daily Points allowance is based on your weight, height, gender, age and level of activity during the day.
In general, the more weight you have to lose, the more Points you are allowed each day. For example, a 37-year-old female who weighs 12 stone and has a desk job is allowed 19 Points a day. If that same person weighed 16 stone, she’d be allowed 24 Points a day. On average, most people have 20 Points a day.
What if I don’t know how many Points there are in a food?
Members who attend weekly meetings receive free Points finders to help them calculate the Points from food using calories and saturated fat details. Also materials handed out at meetings when you first join contain basic food lists.
Members can also buy a Points calculator and/or a Shopping Guide with the Points values for branded and supermarket foods. Weight Watchers on line members and members who attend weekly meetings but are also signed up for internet support (eSource) have online access to a database that includes the Point values for almost 30,000 foods and a Points calculator.
What if I’m really active?
Doing more exercise earns you more Points. For example, 20 minutes of aerobics will add an extra 1 Point to your weekly total, whereas 20 minutes of jogging will add an extra 4 Points. You can earn as many activity Points in a week as you wish. However, you are only allowed to spend 12 of the extra Points each week on food. The idea is to earn more than you eat.
Tell me more about Weight Watchers Core Plan?
Quite simply, you eat as much as you want from a list of ‘healthy’ foods such as fruit, veg, wholegrain cereals, lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs, brown rice, potatoes, skimmed milk and low-fat dairy products.
You should aim to eat three meals a day and only eat until you are comfortably full (not stuffed!). You are then allowed a weekly allowance of 21 Points, which you can use for treats or snacks.
Weight Watchers Core Plan is based on foods that a have a low calorie value relative to their actual weight, in other words, they have a low energy density. According to Weight Watchers, research shows that people tend to eat the same weight of food each day, regardless of the calories it contains. So by eating mostly foods with a low energy density you'll feel satisfied on fewer calories. At the same time you’re encouraged to use a scale to help you identify feelings of hunger and fullness.
How does Weight Watchers online membership compare to Weight Loss Resources?
There are many differences. For example, Weight Watchers doesn’t allow you to opt to lose weight more slowly, for example, 1lb or 1.5lb a week, by giving you a slightly higher Points allowance. Plus, there’s no indication given about how long it will take you to reach your goal.
Unlike WLR, when you complete the Weight Watchers food diary there’s no information provided about the daily number of servings of fruit and veg you’ve had, the amount of water you’ve consumed or the amount of calories and grams of fat and fibre you’ve had – all things that help to highlight whether or not you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet.
The main difference however, is the lack of information about calories, even for recipes. The entire focus is on Points. This means you need to calculate the Points values of pretty much everything you eat and drink – and of course, if you have to log on to do this or search for your Points calculator, it’s more time consuming than simply reading the calorie information on the back of food packets.
What are the pros?
No foods are banned! If you follow the Points plan, you can eat or drink whatever you like, providing you stick to your daily Points allowance. There are more restrictions for the Core Plan, but ultimately, you’re still allowed treats. Weight Watchers could be a good choice if you don’t like the hassle of counting calories – although you need to be aware that you’ll still have the hassle of working out the Points values of many foods!
Ultimately, both the Points Plan and Core Plan encourage you to eat more healthily – the Core Plan only lets you chose from healthier foods with a few treats each week, while on the Points Plan, if you want to stick to your daily allowance you need to opt for lower-calorie, lower-fat foods such as fruit, veg, chicken, lean meat and wholegrain cereals. Weight Watchers weekly meetings can be a good choice if you find it hard to diet on your own and like the idea of having support from others on a personal level. They also provide opportunities for making new friends.
And the cons?
Whether you opt for weekly meetings or Weight Watchers online, it’s pricey, and if either of the diets don’t suit you, you’ll end up losing pounds from your purse rather than your waistline. It can also be just as time consuming – if not more so – to work out the Points values of foods than it would be to simply count calories.
Many of the Points values included in the Weight Watchers database are based on portions rather than actual weights. Whilst there’s a portion size chart to help you identify what counts as, for example, a ‘medium’ portion, this is still far less accurate than including the actual weight to give an accurate calorie or Point value. Meanwhile, with the Core Plan it’s still possible to consume large amounts of ‘healthy’ foods from the ‘free’ list with the result that you gain rather than lose weight.
What options are available for joining Weight Watchers?
The classic membership involves joining a Weight Watchers meeting near to where you live or work. Alternatively, you can become an online member. Members who attend weekly meetings also have the option of receiving online support at any time of night or day with eSource, although you pay extra for this service. Finally, there is a Weight Watchers At Home service that provides you with monthly information by post. Here’s some more information on each…
Weight Watchers Meetings
Quite simply you find a meeting in a convenient location for you, join the class and then attend once a week. At your first meeting, you’ll agree your weight loss goals with your leader and find out more about the two eating plans. If you decide to try the Points Plan your group leader will calculate your daily Points allowance. Each week you’ll have a confidential weigh-in and your group leader will lead a 30-minute discussion on different aspects of weight loss. You’ll also have the support of other members to help you stay motivated.
There’s an initial joining fee of £9, then each weekly class costs £4.95 or £4.25 if you are 60 or over. However, at certain times of the year there are sometimes offers available. Finding your nearest class is easy too. Simply log on to the Weight Watchers website and enter your postcode or call the hotline. You don’t need to make an appointment – simply turn up.
Weight Watchers Online
Weight Watchers offers an online alternative for people who don’t want to attend weekly meetings. Becoming an online member gives you access to the Core Plan and Points Plan, a Points Calculator, a Weight Tracker, progress charts, recipes, weekly emails and message boards. Once signed up, you enter details of your age, gender, activity levels, weight and height and you’ll discover how many Points you’re allowed each day.
An online membership costs an initial subscription fee of £29.95 plus the £9.95 monthly membership fee (£39.90 in total for the first month), then £9.95 a month after that.
Weight Watchers eSource
Weight Watchers also offers an ‘Internet companion’ service for members who attend weekly meetings but want additional support during the week to help them stay on track. This effectively provides weekly members with all the same information they’d receive if they were online members.
In addition to the fee for the weekly meetings, eSource costs £15 for the first three months then £6.95 for each extra month.
Weight Watchers at Home
Weight Watchers at Home allows you to follow one of the Weight Watchers plans from home. All the information is sent to you via post. This option costs £44.85 for a three-month subscription or £69.70 for a six-month subscription.
Are group leaders trained?
Group leaders aren’t medically qualified but they are trained to help people change their eating habits, activity habits and the way in which they think. Leaders go through an interview process with the area manager and if successful, attend weekend workshops for intensive training. They then shadow existing leaders before running their own meetings. All leaders have eight training sessions a year with their regional trainers and area manager, plus annual training with the national training team. Group leaders have all lost weight with Weight Watchers, too, so have had first hand experience of the diets and the highs and lows linked with trying to lose weight.
How much weight can I expect to lose?
Weight Watchers encourages a steady weight loss of 2lb a week.
Can anyone join?
Weight Watchers isn’t right for everyone. It’s not suitable for pregnant women or those suffering with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. If you discover you are pregnant when you’re already a member, you’re only allowed to follow the programme for the first 12 weeks. Children under the age of 10 aren’t allowed to join and under 18s aren’t allowed to become online members.
People with medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease or gallstones, for example, are also advised to see their GP first before starting the plan. Women who are breast-feeding can join Weight Watchers after their baby is six weeks old providing they’ve had their post-natal examination and have their doctor’s approval.
Finally, you need to be at least 5lb heavier than your minimum weight to join. Minimum weights are based on a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 20.
How is my goal weight set?
Body Mass Index (BMI) is used for setting goal weights. To be at goal, you need to have a BMI within the range of 20-25. Each person sets their own goal weight within this range. Weight Watchers also recognise the importance of losing 10 percent of body weight, in terms of the health benefits it brings, and so includes this as one of the target weights.
What happens when I’ve reached my goal?
You can continue to attend Weight Watchers meetings to help you maintain your weight. You’ll get Gold Membership, which means you can attend meetings for the rest of your life for free, providing you stay within 5lb of your goal weight. However, members who have lost a substantial amount of weight can also become Gold Members, even if they’re outside of this range, in recognition of the fact that they are so much healthier.
The Weight Watchers plan is gaining popularity with health professionals. For example, Weight Watchers are increasingly working with the NHS and some GPs now refer and pay for their patients to attend weekly meetings. Ultimately, both the Points Plan and Core Plan help members to reduce the calorie and fat content of their diet – all good stuff!
However, I don’t necessarily think it’s a good idea to take the emphasis off counting calories. Ultimately, it’s calories that count when it comes to losing weight – if you take in fewer calories than you burn up, you’ll lose weight. It’s as simple as that! So, why make it more complicated by adding a middleman in the form of Points? As most high calorie foods have a high Points value, why not just count the calories in the first place – which are now included on most food labels – rather than having the hassle of first calculating the Points and then counting them.
It’s likely that when members leave Weight Watchers behind, they’ll also leave Points behind, so it’s vital that people start to learn how many calories there are in foods and how this compares to their energy needs. After all, this is what will help most people keep their weight off in the long term.
Women need around 1,800-2,000 calories a day to keep their weight steady, men 2,300-2,500. In the long term, it’s therefore far more useful for people to know that a small portion of cod and chips contains around 800 calories – a substantial proportion of daily calorie requirements – rather than 14.5 Points.
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