Diets 101: Weight Watchers

When it comes to commercial diet plans, Weight Watchers is one of the most well known names in the field.  The Weight Watchers method can be loosely described as reducing calories, increasing exercise, and reaching out for social support.  These concepts are taught in a way that encourages long term habit building.  Weight Watchers us a point system to track food intake.  The formula for the point system is basically calories divided by 33 with extra points for carb and fat heavy foods and less points for protein heavy foods.  Here’s the equation:


In this equation, calories from sugar and saturated fats count twice while calories from protein have a negative impact.  To my knowledge, the divide by 33 is there only to bring things to single digits to make for easy point tracking.  Under the point system, many fruits and veggies are automatically given 0 points.

Aside from the point system, the second major part of Weight Watchers are the support meetings.  Participants meet on a regular basis to talk about their struggles and successes and learn new tools to help in their weight loss journey.

The Research

With the commercialization of weight loss, there has been a lot of research on which programs are the most effective for consumers.  In a study (Dansinger et. al. 2005)  of several popular diet programs, Weight Watchers was found to have a higher percentage of people sticking with the program then either the Atkins or Ornish diets (65% vs. 53% and 50% respectively).  The people who stuck with the program lost an average of 3.5kg (7.7 pounds) at the 2 month mark maintained a weight loss of 3kg  (~6.5 pounds) at the one year mark.  Another study (Ahern et. al. 2010) found that of people referred to Weight Watchers by a medical professional, 33% completed the 12 meeting recommendation and lost 5% or more of their body weight (10 pounds in a 200 pound person).

The Verdict

If we take a look at what Weight Watchers recommends with their point system, the equation naturally pushes people to high protein foods, fruits, and vegetables.  This is very similar to the recommendations I give my clients with Flex Dieting but there are some important differences.  The point system makes food intake much easier to track.  Rather than keeping tabs on fluctuating calorie and protein counts, Weight Watcher participants are only asked to keep track of one number per day which makes for a very simple program.  On top of that, Weight Watchers provides participants with the support of a community that shares their goals and struggles which is an invaluable tool in making major life changes.

For all the good things though, the weight loss over time is a little low for my liking.   Looking at the data for weight lost on Weight Watchers, the program encourages moderate weight loss in the first 2-3 months and then encourages maintenance rather than further weight loss.  This coupled with a low adherence rate makes me question the long term effectiveness of the program.

I’d say that Weight Watchers is a great starting place for losing weight.  It does a great job of teaching nutritional awareness to people who want to learn.  It provides a good foundation for people to build off of but once they hit the 2-3 month mark, Weight Watchers provides diminishing returns.