I joined Weightwatchers! My full review!
So, I joined Weightwatchers…no, seriously, I really did!
Why? Simple. I wanted to stake them out! I was aware of the ins and outs of the “old” Weightwatchers program, as my mum was a member a few years back. My mum let me see her program material and she explained how it worked. However, this was a few years back. And since “the science” of healthy eating has advanced. Not to mention how technology has advanced too, with everything now being online and having an app. So, I thought I’d check them out to see how their program had (or hadn’t) changed!
Disclaimer – I know it’s not meant for someone like me!
Note: my mum successfully managed to lose a fair amount of weight a few years ago through Weightwatchers. However, as seems to be a common theme, she put the weight back on shortly after she stopped attending her weekly meetings.
Also, please note that yes, I am aware that I currently do not need to lose weight. Nor am I currently trying to lose weight.
And yes, I am aware that I do not fall under Weightwatchers’ typical target market. I am already a fitness fanatic. Which is why I approached this review with an open mind, to assess the suitability of Weightwatchers for the average dieter.
My membership level
Weightwatchers is certainly one of the most popular weight loss programs, helped in part by celebrity endorsements like that of Oprah Winfrey. More recently DJ Khalid has promoted the program too. Weightwatchers claims to acquire hundreds of thousands of new subscribers every year, so their popularity doesn’t appear to be waning either!
Firstly, let me clarify that I signed up for Weightwatchers’ lowest level of membership. This level involved online membership but no access to weekly meetups. I might be quite bold at times, but there was no way I was going to roll up to a Weightwatchers meeting! I think I do have access to chat online with someone if need be. But besides logging my own activity on my online account, I have no “check-ins” with a coach per se. This option is available, but not for my lowest level membership that I chose.
The “old” Weightwatchers
Now let me get the juicy stuff out of the way and talk about the “old” Weightwatchers program. For your information, the Weightwatchers program has undergone several revamps over the years. This is to adapt to changing eating guidelines, as new dietary research becomes available. Most notably, the program changed in 2015 to introduce “SmartPoints” instead of standard food “Points”. And it changed again to introduce “Weightwatchers Freestyle” in 2017.
How it used to work
If you don’t know this, Weightwatchers works by instead of counting calories, you count “Food SmartPoints”. Honestly, I don’t get the difference, it’s the same shit. For example, instead of counting “Food X” as having 200 calories, you count it as having “2 SmartPoints”. I could understand the reasoning if counting SmartPoints was easier to do than counting calories. If so, yes this would be beneficial for beginners, or for those who needed to learn how to count calories. But from what I’ve seen it really isn’t any easier to do. Plus, instead of learning how to count calories, a beginner must learn to count SmartPoints instead!
I must mention here that Weightwatchers conveniently do have their own line of food products that are already portioned and assigned a SmartPoints number. To make counting SmartPoints counting easier for you. At a markup to normal food products of course. How nice of them!
Anyway, as I understand it, the “old” Weightwatchers worked like this:
Your daily allowance of SmartPoints (yes, your daily calorie allowance), was calculated based on your gender, BMI and how much weight you had to lose. I believe it also considered your daily activity levels (e.g. whether you worked as a lumberjack as opposed to a bus driver). Then, it was up to you to keep your food intake each day within this points limit. All foods were allowed, but higher calorie foods had more SmartPoints than others. So, for example you could blow your whole food allowance on just ice cream or pizza if you wanted to. If the portion sizes were kept small enough to keep you within your allowance, it was OK. In other words, a simple calories in vs calorie out diet.
The problem with the old system
Do you see the problem here? Firstly, is it accurate to set target daily calorie intake using BMI? This could work for the majority, but what about exceptionally muscular people or naturally heavier people? Secondly, what about macronutrients? No attention is paid to protein or carbohydrate intake. And with the “old” Weightwatchers program you were “punished” for choosing foods higher in dietary fat (despite some of these foods containing “good fats”), as these had higher points. Please note though that this fell into the old line of thinking. It was believed that eating cholesterol gave you high cholesterol, or eating fat made you fat, etc. So anyway, it appears that all foods were a free-for-all, if the total daily calories eaten were within range. Surely this allowed for nutrient deficiencies, especially regarding micronutrients. Not to mention that the importance of fibre and protein appear to be undermined, both of which contribute greatly to satiety in a calorie restricted diet.
Fat loss vs weight loss
To comment further on the lack of importance given to macronutrients, the lack of emphasis on adequate protein intake brings up another issue. The “old” Weightwatchers plan failed to differentiate between “weight loss” and “fat loss”. The focus of the plan was on losing scales weight. But this very often would include a loss of fat mass AND muscle mass. This is why you may know someone who lost a significant amount of weight, but they went from being “fat” to being “skinny-fat”. Basically, they ended up a lighter smaller version of themselves. Their body is “smaller” and lighter but is soft looking and lacks any muscle tone. In fact, they look anything but toned! This is in part a result of inadequate protein intake! Adequate protein is essential for maintaining muscle mass, and it also seems to assist in fat loss too!
The good points
The “new” Weightwatchers
Now here’s the interesting part! Weightwatchers appear to have “fixed” this macronutrient problem. When I signed up, I immediately noticed that Weightwatchers have changed their Zero Point Food List! What this means, is that Weightwatchers have a list of foods that have no points assigned to them. So, you can eat unlimited amounts of these foods as part of your diet. This doesn’t sound particularly significant, until you look at what foods are on this list. The whole list consists of lean protein (as well as healthy “fatty” protein like whole eggs, mackerel, and salmon), legumes, fruit, and fibrous non-starchy vegetables. I am unsure exactly when this change came into effect (after a quick Google search it appears to be 2017 at some point). But this is quite a breakthrough to their program. So basically, on the “new” Weightwatchers plan you can now eat unlimited protein and fibre.
Protein and fibre
This was very refreshing to see! Weightwatchers appear to have made the effort to bring their plan up to date to reflect current heathy eating research. They also appear to do this in what may or may not be a clever way. They don’t outright tell people to monitor their protein and fibre intake to ensure adequate intake. But by making these foods “unlimited”, participants of the program, in theory, will naturally prioritise these food options!
A balanced diet and “banking” SmartPoints
Weightwatchers also promote a “balanced” diet still, by not cutting any food groups out. They don’t cut out any foods for that matter. It is still the case that you can have your pizza and ice cream. But these must be within limited quantities to keep within your daily SmartPoint allowance. Another cool addition to the program is that you can “bank” SmartPoints if you want to. So, if you eat less than your allowance of SmartPoint foods for a few days in a week, you can tally up these “missed” SmartPoints and save them for a special occasion. So, you could save them for later in the week, like a night out for example.
What appears to be another addition to the program, is that completed exercise grants you FitPoints. Your challenge is to gain so many FitPoints per day. In other words, to burn so many calories per day through physical activity. If you gain more FitPoints than normal, you can then “trade in” these FitPoints by allowing yourself to eat more SmartPoints. This makes perfect sense. If you are more active than normal, then you have the option of rewarding yourself by eating more! Weightwatchers recognises that not all activity has to come in the form of “formal exercise”. So physical tasks like cleaning the house for example, also count towards your activity level. I think this is a great incentive to get people moving more. A criticism of the “old” program was that not enough emphasis seemed to be placed on exercise, so this is encouraging to see!
Slow and steady
A further good point of the program is it encourages slow and steady weight loss at a rate of 0.5lb to 2lbs a week. This is certainly not a crash diet. And the diet can be very flexible to your individual preferences, with freedom of food choices and meal timing. For example, it would be very simple for someone of special dietary requirements to follow the program. Like, if you were vegan perhaps. Of if someone liked to incorporate Intermittent Fasting, this would work for them too.
I’ve talked about a lot of good things about the “new” Weightwatchers program, but now to address some criticisms.
So, does the program work? That is a very hard question to answer. It appears that all the research I have seen was in fact funded by Weightwatchers themselves! You can refer to my previous blog post on Fitness and Misleading Studies. It doesn’t take long to realise that it poses an issue in assessing the reliability of any study, when it has been self-funded! But from what I have seen, I would say, people do lose weight on this program. How many people manage to maintain their new body weight afterwards? That, I don’t know, but I am tempted to guess that most people will put the weight back on.
Putting the weight back on
Why do I think that most people will put weight back on after reaching their target? Firstly, for the ironic reason that they have “reached their target”. People naturally seem to be more motivated when they have a clear goal they are working towards. So, once they have reached their goal, then what? Motivation slips. Adherence wanes. Weight very often slowly but surely creeps back up again! Until one day, the person realises “oh no, I’m overweight again! I must stick to my diet now!” And the cycle continues. They will now be motivated again. Will lose weight again. They will reach their target again….and then they will let things slip…again!
What about “maintenance”?
So, while I have praised Weightwatchers a lot in this post, I think they could work more on a way to keep people motivated to stop this relapse happening. “Maintenance” should be a big part of any weight loss program. But then again, perhaps it is in their best interests as a business NOT to stop people regaining weight! This yoyo dieting cycle keeps their customers coming back again and again! All you have to do is a quick search online, to see numerous stories of Weightwatchers members that struggled to keep the weight off. So, this leads me to believe that “maintenance” is a genuine issue with the program. It seems that little advice on maintenance is offered. And there are many accounts of people feeling lost, not knowing how to adjust their diet out of “weight loss” mode without getting fat.
Temporary fix vs habit change
Further reading suggests to me that Weightwatchers is failing to create permanent lifestyle changes in a lot of people. It seems that upon reaching their target weight, most people take one of two options. Option one is to carry on with their diet just as strictly as before. They continue as if nothing changed and continue to attend meetings indefinitely. Option two is to fall off the wagon completely. They revert to their pre-diet ways. Both options suggest to me that the program is failing to educate people on “good lifestyle and eating habits”. It seems that some people see Weightwatchers as a temporary solution to a problem. Which is why when that “problem” (being overweight) is resolved, they are quick to abandon the program soon after. Or on the other hand, if Weightwatchers has failed to educate them enough, that once reaching their target weight they are incapable of making better lifestyle and eating choices without the constraints of the program, this is also a problem.
A further issue is I am sceptical as to how the program is adjusted (if it is adjusted) to overcome plateaus in weight loss. Through any weight loss journey, you will almost always come across “sticking points”, in which weight loss stalls or stops completely. Simply put, the body is very good at adapting. Once you cut calories, the body’s metabolism begins to slow down. This is called “Adaptive Thermogenesis”. I know from experience that there are ways to adjust a program to overcome this issue. I have found that usually the different options are to do ONE of the following: further reduce calories; or further increase exercise; increase protein intake; or to introduce higher carbohydrate refeed days. However, Weightwatchers offers little advice on this. Their only offering is telling you to “be patient”, checking that you are not “cheating” on your diet, or ensuring you are being “active” enough. Or interestingly asking yourself “why you are afraid of being slim?” So straight away they assume that you are somehow self-sabotaging! Notice how Weightwatchers concludes that YOU (the dieter) are at fault if weight loss stalls. And it is nothing to do with their program needing adjusting!
Enough protein? What about “fatty protein”?
I am unsure why the program doesn’t encourage the monitoring of protein intake to ensure adequate amounts. I appreciate that this could be to possibly give dieters one less thing to worry about. And by making protein “Zero Points”, Weightwatchers assume that protein intake will naturally be high enough anyway, through dieters’ own choice. But this may not be the case. Additionally, some of the “Zero Points” foods include fatty protein sources like mackerel, salmon, and whole eggs. While these are healthy foods, and their fat content is healthy too, I think people are misled to think they can eat unlimited amounts and still lose weight. These foods, despite being healthy, are still high in calories. So yes, it certainly is possible for someone to overeat these foods and therefore prevent weight loss.
The same could potentially apply to some of the legumes listed as “Zero Points” too, as again, overconsumption can mean an intake of too many calories. Admittedly, I don’t think many people will be overeating legumes though, without their digestive system giving them grief!
Why us points instead of calories?
I must comment on the “Food SmartPoints” concept overall. I don’t see why they try and be cute about it. Why don’t they just get people counting calories? Or at least count macronutrients? I understand completely that all calories are not equal. And I truly believe that most food generally should come from natural, unprocessed, unrefined sources. And that sugar and hydrogenated fat should be limited. But if people are still going to be having to track their food anyway, I’m not sure if Weightwatchers having their own “food currency” so to speak, is necessary! To me, it’s like choosing between trading in US Dollars as opposed to British Pounds! It’s still counting money at the end of the day! But then again, I suppose this forces you to use their app and website to convert food into “SmartPoints”. So again, encouraging you to remain a customer!
Why not just use a free calorie counting app?
I question the “SmartPoints” system, because I am doubtful of its value as opposed to just calorie counting. But I also realise that this is a barrier Weightwatchers have put in place to force me to use their app. And therefore, pay my membership money! Keep in mind that with my basic membership level I don’t attend meetups. All I get is the online resources. If Weightwatchers were to use calories to track food (like the rest of the world!), then I could very easily use one of the hundreds of free calorie counting and exercise tracking apps out there. Pretty much, this is all I seem to be paying for – their version of a calorie counter that I could get free elsewhere!
Lack of structure
This brings me to my next point, that dieters will still have to be motivated enough to track their food. Some people find weighing and measuring food and portion sizes a daunting task. And to be honest, some people are just lazy. So, I could see this being a potential pitfall. Also, some people may be overwhelmed by having “too much freedom”. It’s a funny situation, because some people will moan that their program is too restrictive. But there are others who will moan that it is paralysis by analysis, and they feel stuck from having “too much choice”! Some just want someone to tell them exactly what to do and exactly what to eat! They need a strict structure and routine laid out for them! Weightwatchers does have some sample meal plans for ideas. But for these types of people who want all the decisions already made, I don’t think this program is quite right for them!
Only suitable for beginners
Again, questioning my value for money, it is apparent to me that Weightwatchers’ target audience are absolute beginners. They are aiming their product at those who are sedentary, to transfer them into being active, or at least semi-active. That is totally understandable and is very cool. These people do need help. But again, I question what about people who have reached their target weight? What happens to those people when they are no longer beginners? My membership provides me with exercise programs and instructional videos, with different intensity levels. But still, even at the “hardest” intensity, these exercise programs are not aimed at the fit, or at least the semi-fit person. I would be better off finding exercise programs online myself – for free!
Lack of emphasis on resistance training
An additional issue I see, is the lack of emphasis in incorporating resistance training in the program. When restricting calories, resistance training is important for maintaining muscle mass. Again, let me remind you of people you may have seen that lose weight to become lighter, smaller, yet soft and flabby! Combine a low-calorie diet, with inadequate protein intake, plus little to no resistance training, and you have a perfect situation for losing muscle tissue. Say goodbye to any chance of being toned and shapely!
Lack of value in their articles and recipes
An additional point is that I wasn’t impressed with the information articles I get access too as part of my membership. The level of information is so very basic, for example there are tips likes “drink more water”. For those beyond absolute beginner level, these are not of much value. And again, this information is free all over the web! Likewise, I would criticise their recipe database too, regarding value for money. They have a lot of “healthy recipes”. But on closer inspection they appear to be just “regular recipes”. These are the same standard recipes that you can obtain access to all over the internet for free! There is nothing original about them. Except that they tell you how many “SmartPoints” they contain!
I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Weightwatchers plan is evolving, and it has improved greatly compared to what it once was!
I like the emphasis the diet inadvertently puts on protein and fibre. Yet I think there is still the potential for dieters to end up not getting adequate amounts without tracking. I think the program would do better to incorporate monitoring of all macronutrients in general. But I do like that the diet promotes slow and steady weight loss. And it doesn’t cut out any foods completely like some fad diets. This makes it appear to be a more sustainable program for the long run.
Lots of room for improvement
Their diet plan has the double-edged sword of being very flexible. This will work well for some, but not so much for others who need a more rigid structure. Additionally, I think the exercise part of Weightwatchers needs work. This is especially so regarding the lack of emphasis on resistance training. Which helps prevent metabolism slow down, prevents loss of muscle, and prevents fat loss stalling.
Weightwatchers addresses the needs of the beginner quite well. But it seems little advice is given regarding weight loss plateaus. And even less advice is given regarding adjusting the plan into “maintenance” mode. The general advice, articles, and recipes were overall unimpressive too, considering that you are paying money for access to these.
For this reason, I question the value of Weightwatchers. It seems that with the level of membership I chose, I was essentially just paying for a calorie and exercise counter that uses “points” instead of calories. I could have downloaded one of these apps for free.
Furthermore, we don’t really know how successful the program really is. We cannot rely on Weightwatchers’ own funded research not to be biased. And we don’t know how many people keep the weight off once they have lost it. I would question if lifestyle changes and good habits are truly being learned here.
In saying all of this, I think the real value in Weightwatchers involves the meetups. Accountability and adherence are probably the biggest thing in any weight loss plan. I can see how being part of a “group” is more motivating, so I think the concept of a weekly meeting can be a great thing. However, this will NOT appeal to everyone – for many, a public weigh-in sounds awful! However, again if you were to go the free route, you could simply download a free calorie counter app. And then meet up with a friend every week to ensure you stay on track!
Additionally, it seems the plan fails to teach “self accountability” if the only way people manage to keep within a healthy weight range is by attending their weekly meetup for life!
Is the program really working if it is not instilling permanent lifestyle change and habit change? How can the program be called a success if members don’t finish the plan empowered enough to control their own weight?
Weightwatchers doesn’t teach healthy habits and lifestyle changes enough to ensure that dieters won’t relapse once they stop attending meetups. But then again, this is possibly in Weightwatchers’ best interests. To keep these customers coming back again and again.
Still, Weightwatchers’ target audience is absolute beginners. So, for this demographic, I think they will get value from this program just to get started at least. This could explain why the exercise component of the program is so very basic too. Anything more is unnecessary to those very new to exercise.
The problem would clearly lie in once people get past this beginner stage.
So, my overall verdict – is Weightwatchers worth it? For the absolute beginner, maybe. But probably just as a very temporary solution, to get them started on their weight loss journey.
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