What Is Weight Watchers?
Weight Watchers is among the most widely-known commercial diets—globally—offering a program for weight loss. Its products and services include online and in-person weight loss support with its SmartPoints eating plan, FitPoints activity plan, and a mobile app that helps dieters track progress, plan meals and track activity. Weight Watchers has been ranked the top commercial diet for seven years in a row by U. S. News & World Report and has several studies to back up the science.
Weight Watchers Today
So, Weight Watchers was named the 2017 Best Weight-Loss Diet by U.S. News & World Report. (Weight Watchers was named so by me in 1998, 2000, and 2004, but we’ll get to that in a bit.) The 7th annual list includes nine sets of Best Diets rankings, and Weight Watchers was first—or tied for first place—in almost half the categories and was a runner-up in the rest. And while Weight Watchers did not make the cut as “Best Overall Diet”—The DASH Diet took that prize—it’s arguably the world’s most popular diet. Anyone who has ever been on a diet to lose weight, and been successful, has been on Weight Watchers.
The beauty of Weight Watchers was, and is, that it works, and therein lies the irony: it works, and it doesn’t. On Weight Watchers:
- You shed pounds.
- You’re happy.
- You go off the diet.
- You regain the weight.
- You go back on the diet.
- You lose weight.
- You go off the diet.
Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s a cycle and pretty successful business model, apparently.
In a BBC story from several years ago, a former Weight Watchers finance executive admitted its business is based on repeat customers; people who fail to keep the weight off—an astonishing 84 percent—“have to come back and do it again. That’s where your business comes from.” But the company science officer rebuffed the claim, saying that was never the idea when it was founded in a Queens, New York, kitchen in the early 1960s by an plump housewife.
And that leads us to the roots of one of the world’s most popular diets.
The Birth of Weight Watchers
Maybe part of the reason Weight Watchers is so long-lived, so deep in our culture, is its beginnings. Weight Watchers was created by Jean Nidetch, a 1960s overweight housewife who was mistakenly taken for pregnant (ouch!).
But right off the bat, millions could relate as a working woman, mother, and wife; trust was built-in, in my opinion. If a squad of scientists had come up with the concept, it may not have caught on. (Actually, several squadrons of white coat-clad scientists could never have come up with the secret to Weight Watchers, as you’ll soon see).
Keep in mind, Nidetch’s plan did come with science—though more in the form of common sense, some study, reflection, and calculation. Like we all do every day to keep our lives on track (plans, budgets, schedules, management; the CEO of the family). Jean didn’t want to be fat, and did every fad diet. She lost and gained, lost and gained.
Weight Watchers: The Big Idea
Then after being on a diet recommended by health officials, Jean had an epiphany and figured out what would work. Her idea was to encourage women to combine then-relevant nutritional science with exercise, and that meant moving your body beyond the routine daily activities of a working mother (working is working, people. Most women have two, or more, jobs!).
Okay, we’ve got it: diet and exercise. But there was one more Nidetch ingredient, the one that made Weight Watchers what it became: a multi-billion-dollar global phenomenon.
Her idea? Weight Watchers meetings (the first one was in a NYC pizzeria!) where there was camaraderie, accountability, and support. The idea was simple yet inspired. A community, a fellowship, an alliance of weight-watchers in solidarity: we will lose weight together!
My Firsthand Experience
In my first experience with Weight Watchers, I lost 23 pounds in three months; I still feel proud of that today. I did my first go-round of Weight Watchers with my sister. She and I—with around twenty other women (and the occasional man)—met in a church basement on Saturday mornings. The Points system had recently been introduced, and for me it worked. But the system was only as good as a weight-watcher’s commitment to the group and commitment to stand on that scale and share your embarrassments—and soon, your triumphs.
Nidetch had done something revolutionary but uncomplicated: weigh-ins, Weight Watchers swag, and gold stars on your log when you lost, and all with sisters with whom to vent and share, and with a meeting leader to inspire. Over the years, I have attended meetings with three different cheer-leading leaders; two were great, and one was just too much for me. If you’ve done Weight Watchers and attended meetings, maybe you know that leader, just too zealous or too preachy. Anyway, I digress.
Weight Watchers Point System
Weight Watchers implemented a points system in the 1990s, where foods were given a numerical value based on nutritional profile. Depending on weight loss goals and stats—including weight, height, age, and gender—dieters are allotted a certain number of points per day and “spend” them on whatever foods they choose.
So then, how does Weight Watchers work? Starting from the beginning, the program included a very specific eating system and over the years there have been a number of iterations. But the introduction of the original Weight Watchers Points system—currently referred to as SmartPoints—kicked the specifics into super-user-friendly. It came into being from Weight Watchers Limited in the United Kingdom, where two women invented, developed, and patented the Points system calculator.
This was key. Using an algorithm that calculated calories, fats, proteins, and carbs, it would have a couple of iterations, too, as more was learned about nutrition and exercise science. But the underlying system, of counting foods as values based on nutrition, was genius then and it remains the cornerstone today.
Weight Watchers Beyond the Scale Program
The newest program, launched in 2016, is dubbed Beyond the Scale. Weight Watchers says it wants people to not diet per se, but adopt a Weight Watchers lifestyle:
Our proven program is not a diet. It’s about living. Your best self isn’t just about a magical number on the scale. It’s about seeing food as fuel for a healthy life, finding ways to move more each day, and developing the skills to unlock your inner strength so you can make healthy choices for life. Yes, you will lose weight. But with Weight Watchers, you’ll also gain a whole new perspective on getting—and staying—healthy.
Weight Watchers SmartPoints
The Weight Watchers SmartPoints system translates a food’s nutritional information into a point value and dieters are allotted a number of points (food values) per day.
The current program is pretty simple, in that every food has a value. SmartPoints are calculated based on calories, saturated fat, sugar, and protein. You simply adhere to your allotted points. There are no forbidden foods.
(And that phrase alone is for some the ah-ha! moment and for others the arghh! moment. For me it’s the former, and one of my two issues with Weight Watchers, you’ll soon read.)
But if you eat junk your points will be consumed very quickly (what a waste), so it’s better to eat good foods and manage your points wisely. What’s cool is Weight Watchers has thousands of recipes with SmartPoints values—and even if you’re making something not listed in the recipe library, you can calculate the SmartPoints on the mobile app or on the website.
Doing the Math on Points
Weight Watchers explains that it takes the complex nutritional information of a food and gives it a single number—the SmartPoints value—so people can make smarter food choices while eating the stuff they like to eat. Well, some of it anyway. Sign up with Weight Watchers, plug in some info, and you’ll get your SmartPoints allotment. It’s up to you how you use those points. And, each week you get bonus points—which, when I did Weight Watchers in my last go-round, I banked and then pigged out on Friday nights. Just Ben, Jerry, and me. Anyway, the idea of points is smart, easy, and doable.
Weight Watchers FitPoints
Previously known as Activity Points, FitPoints is the Weight Watchers physical activity tracking system; the more you exercise, the more you’re able to eat.
So we have the “diet” part. Next? Get moving. And I mean not just parking further away from the store entrance. Get your heart rate up and keep it up with fat-burning, good-for-your-heart exercise. I swim (albeit not enough). You can walk, run, jog, row, climb, spin, bike, step, jump, skip, kick—you get the idea. You don’t need a fancy, expensive piece of equipment or a gym membership (it would be cool, though); you just need to find the cardio exercise you enjoy and can afford. And do it at least 30 minutes every day—or at least most days of the week—as best as you can fit in your already ridiculously hectic life. Actually, make it your time; take 30 minutes, put headphones on, and do it. And, it turns out, even during the most seemingly mundane of tasks, you earn FitPoints which you add to your total points for the day.
Sticking to Fit
FitPoints is also a smart idea. Let’s say you have 34 points for the day, but you did some vigorous gardening, biked for 20 minutes, took the stairs, and walked the dog—you are rewarded with a few extra points and can enjoy that extra half-cup of whole grain penne with marinara (that you make yourself, hopefully). Weight Watchers explains it this way:
FIT is about getting back in touch with your body. We’ll set you a FitPoints goal and our team will help you stick to it. Straight away you’ll start to de-stress, perk up, and find more energy. The truth is, it won’t be long ‘til your body proves it can!
Weight Watchers has several dozen videos, workouts, demos, fitness plans, and challenges. “Whether you have 4 minutes or an hour, you’ll never run out of ideas.” Sounds good, right? And all of this can be managed on a handy, popular app.
Weight Watchers Mobile App Review
The Weight Watchers mobile app for smartphones and devices helps dieters to track weight loss progress, manage SmartPoints and FitPoints, shop for and plan meals, and offers social networking with other members.
What makes this all doable is you don’t have to do the math yourself; Smart Points and Fit Points are calculated on the Weight Watchers mobile app for your smartphone or other device (don’t you love technology?). Every step you take, every bite you eat, kept track of. Now your head’s in the game; you’ve got this.
The mobile app for Android has almost 200,000 reviews on Google Play with an overall rating of 4.1 stars. Reviewers find it easy to use, convenient, and it helps dieters stay on track. The app scans supermarket barcodes for Points values to help you better plan meals, fitness points are synced so your daily points allotment is up-to-the-minute, you can add to and learn from your recipe library, and what many loved is the ability to network and get social by posting images of progress, seeking out support 24/7, accessing online coaching, and connecting with other dieters.
Similarly, on iTunes, more than 2,000 real people reviewed the current iteration of the app and gave it a close to 5 stars. Even the previous versions of the app—with 12,000 reviews—agreed it was effective, easy to use, and helped Weight Watchers dieters keep track.
And there’s no shortage of reviews from tech bloggers and journalists. It’s a winner.
What’s Even More Appealing
On the Weight Watchers app you can live chat with a coach and—for a lot of people who are focused on the fitness in the program and want a fuller health-tech experience—toggle to the Activity tab to your track activeness. And if you have an Apple Watch, wireless scales, and an activity tracker—like Up by Jawbone or Apple Health, for example—you can connect them to your Weight Watchers account.
Weight Watchers Online
Weight Watchers’ user-friendly, intuitive online tools help dieters get and stay on course and track their progress.
Along with Weight Watchers online, a virtual and brick-and-mortar support network (yes, there are still meetings, absolutely!) and the app, Weight Watchers products range from A to Z and the kitchen sink:
- food and drink including snacks, shakes, candies, bars, pastas, smoothies, even spices and herbs
- kitchen gizmos and tools including scales, spiralizers, steamers, salad bowls, and shakers, as well as cookbooks
- lifestyle products that include accessories, scales, and apparel
- fitness-related items like FitBits, yoga mats, stretch bands, and myriad highly-rated workout DVDs for things like Pilates and yoga, and even kits for an exercise dance party and a punching workout.
How Much Does Weight Watchers Cost?
Weight Watchers costs in the neighborhood of $10 a week (not including any foods or products) for access to its online tools and meeting programs.
What does Weight Watchers cost? A little secret from me: Once you have done Weight Watchers, you know how to do Weight Watchers—so as some say, you can do it without paying. Oh, but there’s a catch!
Remember I said that accountability, motivation, community, and support are the secrets to Weight Watchers? They still are. In fact, Weight Watchers itself—even in this day and age where everything is online—recommends the plan you go with is the one with meetings: “Meetings is where magic happens.”
I agree. (Note: I typed in my ZIP code and found 30-plus meetings within 15 miles of me) But whether you go to a meeting in person or do it online, it’s still a community and you are accountable, if to no one else but yourself.
So you pay. How much? It depends. If your timing is good, you won’t pay to sign up because there are always freebies and specials. But, as of fall of 2017, there are three plans:
- Weight Watchers Online Plus – which is the online-only program (the site is honestly great, folks) from $3.07 a week
- Weight Watchers Meetings – which includes all the online tools, Online Plus, and weekly meetings, from $6.92 a week
- Weight Watchers Coaching – which includes a personalized program with personal coaching via phone or text, plus the Online Plus tools ,from $8.46 a week
Remember though, it’s a plan and it’s charged monthly, so read the fine print. Generally, though, for the basics it’s about $10 a week if you stick to your plan. Just read the fine print. It’s not quantum calculus or anything, but you do need to understand how it works.
Does Weight Watchers Work?
At this point it’s important to say that Weight Watchers works. It does. If you follow it. If you fall off the tracks, you just get back on. So if you’re fairly religious about it, you can expect to lose 1 to 2 pounds a week.
When I did my first round with Weight Watchers, I lost 4 pounds the first week and I have to tell you, I remember that day like it was yesterday. I stuck with it for 11 more weeks and ended up dropping 23 pounds. Then life happened and… Well, suffice it to say I gained it all back over the course of a year, and that in part is the basis for one of my two objections to Weight Watchers, you’ll soon read. But it can work for you. And it’s not just me saying this, it’s science saying it.
I love science. I’m not good at it, but I respect science and prefer it to magic, to fantasies, to pseudoscience and quackery, which is everywhere in the diet business. We chubbies will do anything, try anything, to lose weight! I can say that: I am still overweight (although I have been doing rather a good job lately of eating better and exercising more and lost 20 pounds in the past year on my own “diet,” so there!). So I’m going to give you the rock-solid science on Weight Watchers.
Weight Watchers Science
It’s likely no diet has been the subject of more academic study and research, with results published in you-name-it medical and scientific journals. None that I have found seem to have an agenda; they’re just studies to prove, or disprove. Just the facts, and the facts are that Weight Watchers ticks most of the good boxes—most being the operative word there. But I’ll get to that when I give you my bottom line, so hold on.
The American Journal of Medicine
In the meantime, I’m putting your thinking caps on you, starting with a study published in 2013 in The American Journal of Medicine which found Weight Watchers was far more effective as a weight loss program than a do-it-yourself diet, which apparently is how most of us diet. The study found that
…use of the WW program yielded significantly greater weight loss than a self-help approach, suggesting it is a viable community-based provider of weight loss treatment, as recommended by the US Preventive Services Task Force. Further, high usage of 3 access modes was associated with greater weight loss results.
In other words, the meetings, the online support, the App, all make a big difference. I’m not sure that’s so surprising. It’s what made Weight Watchers a good diet to begin with; it takes a village to diet successfully.
British journal The Lancet published a 2011 study which followed several hundred people for a year; half on a diet recommended by their doctor and the other half on Weight Watchers. The majority of the participants on Weight Watchers stuck to the diet and lost twice as much weight as the doctor-diet group.
American Diabetes Association
Finally, the American Diabetes Association has studied Weight Watchers and found that meeting attendance combined with an emphasis on healthy eating—including veggies, fruit and high-fiber, low trans-fat foods—makes it a good commercial diet choice with better, and healthier, results.
Weight Watchers Celebrity Endorsements
How about Weight Watchers reviews? A picture is worth a thousand words, and for me the before-and-after of performer Jennifer Hudson is all you need to see to know Weight Watchers works. She lost 80 pounds. And though she ended her relationship with the company after about four years, she lost the equivalent weight of a healthy 10-year-old and said in interviews that Weight Watchers changed her life.
The Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson, Lynn Redgrave, Jessica Simpson, Jenny McCarthy… And the biggest name of all, Oprah Winfrey, who not only endorses Weight Watchers, she bought ten percent of the company. If that’s not an endorsement, I’m not sure what is. What each of these has in common, too, is that all successfully lost quite a bit of weight on Weight Watchers, and in the case of most—if not all—have kept the weight off, in some cases for years.
Regular People Reviews
But what about regular people? The most candid and compelling review I located was posted on SparkPeople.com by “WannaBeHealthy51” who explained that she lost 86 pounds on Weight Watchers in 1997 and then life got in the way and she stopped going to meetings. (Sounds familiar.)
I didn’t learn how to maintain my loss and just (did it to myself) went back to eating whatever and you can guess, I gained it all back. Then a few years ago, I pulled out all of my WW material and lost about 36 pounds and was feeling wonderful, but didn’t stick with it and gained it back with a few friends. Bummer. So my humble opinion on WW, I believe it works great if you stick with it.”
She said while on Weight Watchers she ate a lot of high-fiber foods, a lot of vegetables, lean meats and fish, light breads, fruit and drank a lot of water.
I know this woman. I am this woman. And so are 84 percent of Weight Watchers, if you believe the company’s former finance director.
Weight Watchers Charms
The wizardry of Weight Watchers isn’t exactly magic; rather nutrition and exercise science. But trinkets, tools, and good old-fashioned customer service help the spell work.
The allure, or Weight Watchers charms, are many. I loved the gadgets and many I still have, including the old Points slide thingamajig. Back in the day, free recipe cards and cookbooks, coupons, and trinkets to help remind me that I was accountable; a key chain, pocket guide, measuring cup, and non-toxic plastic water bottle with Weight Watchers emblazoned on it—those little talismans made a difference. And when my then 15-year-old daughter and I did Weight Watchers together several years back online, she decided it wasn’t for her and wanted out. She had no problem canceling and she said Weight Watchers customer service was great. I have never dealt with them but my daughter’s experience was good—and trust me, she’s a tough customer.
Weight Watchers Alternatives
Based on our research people frequently try to compare Weight Watchers to other brands. Often the brands and their products are different in many ways which makes it hard to compare apples-to-oranges. This is our attempt to compare below 5 and pick the winner. This is not necessarily to say that we recommend any of the winners, instead this is simply author’s opinion when asked to compare each. Please take this information with the grain of salt and do your own research. If making dietary changes we recommend consulting with your medical doctor.
|Weight Watchers||Trim Down Club (Favorite)|
|Weight Watchers||Ketogenic Diet|
|Weight Watchers||Low Carb Diet|
|Weight Watchers||21 Day Fix|
Trim Down Club vs Weight Watchers
Of these, I recommend The Trim Down Club over Weight Watchers and here’s why: The camaraderie and accountability of Weight Watchers is part of why, for many, it’s successful. Coaching and networking, weighing in and showing up, online or in person—like I did back in the day in a church basement with a couple of dozens other folks fingers-crossed on the scale, chatting together, sharing recipes, and listening to a motivational leader. I understand the attraction to Weight Watchers. Been there, done that, and, I have been successful. Every. Time. I. Have. Done. Weight Watchers. And that’s the point; the weight didn’t stay off so I, like millions more, yo-yo diet. With The Trim Down Club it’s all about changing lifestyle as the key to weight loss. It’s really just that simple. There isn’t a nutritionist or dietician who’d deny that eating whole, fresh, nutrient-rich foods and exercising is the elixir for staying healthy, fit and trim. I am convinced, after nearly 60 years on this planet and having spent most of it overweight, that dramatically changing what you eat and moving your body every day is what it’s all about. The Trim Down Club not only gets this but it’s the entire foundation for the plan: prepare your own healthy, whole, fresh, fat-burning food while you also stay motivated and more committed to a complete lifestyle change for you and your whole family; no more buying separate foods, especially the so-called diet prepared, processed, keeping-you-fat foods found in every aisle of your supermarket.
Ketogenic Diet vs Weight Watchers
And, like the cornerstone of a program like Weight Watchers, enjoy camaraderie and be held accountable; it is a ‘club’ after all. On the Trim Down Club website, club members (like the women I met every Saturday morning at weigh-ins in the days of yore) meet up with other club members; the supportive and active Trim Down Club community. More than 1 million members and a social media following of nearly 200,000 cannot be wrong. And for a lot us, a major plus is that it’s cheap to join (a couple of large skinny lattes cost more), and has a 60-day, 100 percent money-back guarantee.
Many people who search for diet information about Weight Watchers also check out the Ketogenic system. Like many, I have done similar diets where you put your body into Ketosis—like Atkins. Comparing it to Weight Watchers is a bit of a stretch though given Weight Watchers does not severely restrict carbohydrate intake. Yes, it does encourage limiting ‘white’ carbs; white rice, bread and pasta, for example, especially as each of its latest system iterations show. But the two are pretty dissimilar. Not a good match.
Nutrisystem vs Weight Watchers
Nutrisystem is another diet that pops up in searches for diets similar to Weight Watchers likely because of the prepared, packaged or ready-made meals and snacks. Weight Watchers has really cornered the market on prepared foods found in nearly all of your supermarket aisles. Nutrisystem, though extremely popular, relies on pre-made, processed and packaged foods. Not a fan.
Of these, I recommend The Trim Down Club over Weight Watchers and here’s why…
Low Carb Diet vs Weight Watchers
The Low Carb Diet too shows up in online searches and though akin to Ketogenic because of it’s very low carb restriction. As I mentioned, Weight Watchers encourages but does not restrict carbs. Just about every frozen Weight Watchers entree has white pasta or white rice with a smattering of protein and lots of carrots. I know this because for years, on and off, I ate them regularly. No longer. I cook/prepare everything we eat.
21 Day Fix vs Weight Watchers
And finally, the 21 Day Fix is a diet that often appears when people are surfing the Web for diets like Weight Watchers. But they are about as close as fifth cousins. The 21 Day Fix is wildly popular and trendy and among the most searched diets. Celebrity trainer and bikini model Autumn Calabrese’s diet is about clear-cut, confined portion control combined with daily vigorous exercise. And at 21 days, it couldn’t be more dissimilar to Weight Watchers which has only your goal weight defining the duration. But Calabrese’s idea is that it takes 21 days to change your eating habits and secure your commitment to exercise. I have no idea if that’s true; it’s a bold claim.
The Trim Down Club helps folks make the change for life. That’s appealing to me and, I suspect, health practitioners who encourage people who struggle with their weight to embark on an improved, healthy and transformative way of eating, exercising and living.
Is Weight Watchers Worth a Try?
If you haven’t done Weight Watchers, try it. If you follow the diet religiously—and it is very doable—you absolutely will lose weight, usually in the neighborhood of a pound or two a week. The tricky part is keeping the weight off once you’ve met your goal. But hopefully the habits learned while on Weight Watchers will stick. With Weight Watchers, you can’t lose. I mean you can, you can lose.
Two Biggest Problems With Weight Watchers
In 1978, Nidetch sold Weight Watchers to R. J. Heinz Company (yes, of fructose-rich ketchup fame) for $78 million. I suppose that was a smart move on her part and made her filthy rich. Heinz, obviously, is a mega-food producer and one of the kings of processed foods, and while it sold most of Weight Watchers to a European entity about 17 years ago, it still produces Weight Watchers packaged foods under the Weight Watchers label and Smart Ones brand.
My issue: processed foods with modified or chemically-changed foods, or foods robbed of nutrients, or those with added artificial ingredients for flavor—especially sugars, sodium and saturated fats—are the worst thing we can eat besides fast food. And I am here to tell you, I ate my share and then some of those so-called Smart Ones frozen pepperoni pizzas, and I did not do myself any favors.
So go on, try Weight Watchers. But please buy and prepare your own meals using fresh whole foods. Real food. Do not buy their crap (Sorry, Oprah). Listen, I’m just being honest. It’s junk. And it’s not only unhealthy—processed and refined foods could be sabotaging your efforts to lose weight.
And finally, since loss-gain-return, loss-gain-return is the cycle for the vast majority of people on Weight Watchers—and the money-counters hope you do keep coming back—consider this a word to the wise: if you know that sustainability is going to be a problem for you, and it likely will be, then try and change your lifestyle rather than just diet, as I’ve quoted Weight Watchers suggesting. (I know; they are speaking out of both sides of their mouth).
If you try Weight Watchers and gain the weight back, you are not a failure. Don’t punish yourself. I’m still thinking about those 23 pounds.
So, yes, Weight Watcher is worth a try, if you are one of the actual smart ones who does not buy into the product line and works to maintain your weight loss. Trust me on this, sisters. (And brothers; I know you’re out there!)