Weight Watchers plan changes are more about profit than health

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I have a confession to make. I’ve been a member of Weight Watchers.

I first used Weight Watchers 8 years ago, after my freshman year of college. I can’t remember what made me decide to try it, but I found their website, joined the online program (no meetings for me) and away I went.

I found the points system to be fascinating, obsessive and quite effective. Like most diets, if you follow the rules (exactly, and obsessively), you lose weight. The rules of Weight Watchers taught me new things about portion sizes and calorie choices, and did help me lose a substantive amount of weight within a few months.

As diets go, I think the WW plan is pretty logical. No fasting, or all liquid gimmicks. No pills or herbal infusions. But like any diet, if abused, it can be taken to extremes in unhealthy ways. I’ve seen friends battling with anorexia use the program in harmful ways. We also all know that dieting is an extremely socially-promoted, gendered practice. That’s true. And it’s also true that a huge percentage of women and men still do it. It’s a reality we haven’t changed, even some of us, myself included, who are super-feminist, body positive folks.

Like any diet that is a business, WW is all about making money. I was intrigued, as someone who has used WW, to see the new plan they revealed last week. Despite complaints from some users, I think their changes on fruits and vegetables are great and make a lot of sense, health-wise. On the old plan, you were discouraged (in some ways) from eating fruit because it had the same “points value” as a low-fat twinky, for example. And WW has made millions off their line of highly processed foods, pre-packaged into points friendly servings. So in some ways,  it looked like WW was undermining their own business.

But not so fast.

In actuality, I think the motivation behind Weight Watcher’s radical new plan is an attempt to make sure their customers still need them. The old points system was easily calculated. WW never shared the formula on their website (you used their “points calculator” instead) but I easily found the formula posted on another website back when I started the plan. With a few simple math tricks (based on the calorie, fat and fiber content of the food) I could figure out the points value in my head, without needing to pay WW a dime.

Not anymore. Now the new “points plus” system is based on fat, protein, carbohydrates and fiber. I have a feeling the math isn’t so simple. In reality they probably did find that when you incentivize fruit and vegetable consumption, people lose weight more effectively than when you incentivize low-fat processed twinkies. But it’s also good for their bottom line if you need to pay $20 a month just to use their magic calculator.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted December 8, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    I’ve done Weight Watchers, or Chocoholics Anonymous, as I like to call it. I went to the meetings because I found that I was more disciplined if I knew I was going to weight in next Wednesday. While paying was annoying, the meetings actually were pretty good. Maybe they weren’t worth a full $20, but I’d think $10 would be reasonable. The people there actually advised against using WW food products, as well as any other processed foods because they weren’t as healthy. So while they use the WW name for the legitimacy, they weren’t representatives trying to sell as much of their products as possible.

    Also, I downloaded an iphone app to calculate and keep track of points, so I’m sure that with the new system, somebody will figure out the math and make similar apps. Though its not accessible by everyone, it will certainly help.

  2. Posted December 8, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    There is lots of money to be made in building the perfect diet plan. One can be sure that the possibility exists to grab the attention of many. I’ve known many people who have successfully used Weight Watchers over the years, but I wonder sometimes if a personal visit to a nutritionist might time better spent.

  3. zooeysalin
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    I agree that, overall, the new plan is going to make WW a great deal of money. The formula for a food’s point value is available online (some enterprising folks tracked down WW’s patent and posted the information), but they’re holding the daily points portions under wraps. You either have to attend a meeting or buy their calculator in order to find out how many points you’re allowed per day. And, having attended a few meetings, I can say that some WW leaders are guilty of fat shaming.

    However, i do think WW has probably the healthiest and most commons sense approach to losing weight out of the commercial diets. I grapple with PCOS and am overweight. It’s had a number of side-effects on my health and I decided to lose weight (even though I’ve always liked my curvy frame). WW has made it a great deal easier to lose weight and I don’t feel the way I felt even when I was seeing a nutritionist- if I treat myself to a soda, no one jumps my ass about the horrors of empty calories and hf corn syrup. Again, common sense. One soda is not going to kill me. Although, like all weight loss companies, they’re in it for the money, I believe they at least teach some good habits (smaller portions, choose healthier options) which we should all follow for our health. It isn’t true that being overweight is always harmful to your health, but for many it is affecting their health negatively. Ultimately, individuals need to have a healthy relationship with both their bodies and food and I’ve started that process with the help of WW.

  4. Posted December 8, 2010 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Why would you be ashamed to admit you’ve been on Weight Watchers? I’ve been on WW twice in my life: once in high school, and right now, in my senior year of college. My experience with Weight Watchers has been wholly positive. As someone who is fat-positive and who undestands that any size cna be healthy, I know that it’s not socially necessary for me to lose weight. However, I *personally* feel better when I’m within a particular weight range. And by “feel better,” I mean that it’s easy for me to get out and move around. Also, because of a hormone condition (PCOS), when I’m heavier, I am at a higher risk for getting diabetes. So it is important for me to contain my weight within a certain range.

    I think this article is a bit critical of Weight Watchers. Compared to almost every other weight-loss program I’ve seen, WW is really empowering. My meeting leaders have always stressed nutrition, personal empowerment, and self-confidence. People are there to lose weight, so we do talk about numbers some, but most of the celebrations we had in my meetings were for health restoration (when people would rid themselves of high blood pressure, diabetes, etc), and not the sizes. I’m not sure if I’d call it a feminist organization, but WW is very inclusive, and as a feminist, I’ve found much peace with WW.

    As for the new points system, I’m surprised at the new calculations. Fat, protein, and fiber as a part of the calculation make sense, but carbohydrates threw me for a loop, as carb-less (or, carb-few) weightloss plans are not very lasting. But a gimmick to make more money? I don’t know about all that. WW is expensive, but once you reach your goal, it’s free. When I first started WW there were options (core vs flex plans), and I don’t think the introduction of the new program is a scam. However, it is good to always be critical of marketing like this, and discourse is healthy.

  5. Posted December 8, 2010 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Sounds more like a case where Weight Watchers is benefiting the consumer (by introducing a weight-loss plan that is healthier) and increasing profits (by dissuading free-riders who would ‘steal’ their plan). We’ll pay money for the ideas and content in a book, a movie, or TV – I don’t see how enforcing payment for their services on Weight Watchers is any different. It’s where the pursuit of self-interest aligns with the demands of the consumer.

    • Posted December 9, 2010 at 1:39 am | Permalink

      Pretty much. I don’t see how it’s wrong for WW to try to make money off of their product and related services. I mean, the OP admits to getting the formula for free, which kind of seems like when people complain about things like copyright protection on goods that they intend to steal, not buy.

      I’ve known quite a few people who have been aided by WW, and their “diet” seems quite reasonable and health-centered as far as I can tell. I don’t think it’s a bad thing when the more reasonable diet services get their financial due.

      I mean, if I had to choose between WW or the “Only Lemonade and Maple Syrup for a Month” people making money it’s a pretty easy one.

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