Weight Watchers Is One of 2018’s Top Diets—but Does It Actually Work?
Weight Watchers boasts major endorsements from health-conscious personalities such as Oprah and DJ Khaled, plus top rankings in U.S. News & World Report’s annual Best Diet Plans report. But what exactly is the secret to Weight Watchers’ success?
For many of us, Weight Watchers is a household name. You’ve either followed this popular, points-based diet, or you likely know someone who has. And while it may not be as buzzy as Keto or Whole30, this long-standing weight loss program has existed for nearly 60 years and continues to be a leading diet plan today.
To explain Weight Watchers’ longevity, I took a closer look at each component. Here, learn how the current points system works, reasons for the diet’s success, and my potential concerns with it.
So, does Weight Watchers really live up to its hype? Let’s find out.
What Is Weight Watchers?
Weight Watchers (WW) started in the early 1960’s and has steadily grown to become one of the most popular commercial diet programs in the country, as well as internationally. The original program looked little like today’s program does, but this is likely part of what has led to the diet’s longevity—the company frequently makes program updates based on new research and health knowledge. The newest version, Weight Watchers Freestyle, launched in December 2017 and is touted by the company as “our most liveable plan in over 50 years.”
Weight Watchers Points System
Weight Watchers Freestyle centers around the use of a points system called SmartPoints. Each member receives a set amount of daily SmartPoints that take into account body size, age, activity, and weight loss goal. Members then budget their SmartPoints throughout the day to stay on track with their goal.
A food’s point value is determined by a proprietary formula that factors in calories, saturated fat, sugar, and protein content. Healthier foods—those with more protein and fiber and less saturated fat or added sugars—have a lower SmartPoints value. Less nutrient-dense foods— those with more saturated fat or sugars and less fiber and protein—have higher values.
You’re encouraged to eat plenty of lower-point foods (particularly zero-points foods) to stay full and satisfied, so that you have more SmartPoints to spread across the day. The plan also factors in flexibility by giving each member 28 weekly SmartPoints to use for occasional treats and special events.
The Weight Watchers Freestyle program is similar to previous versions, but its biggest change is offering a greater variety of zero-point foods. Before Freestyle, only healthier, very low-calorie foods like fruits, vegetables, and egg whites were zero-point foods. Now, this list includes very lean proteins (skinless chicken or turkey breast, fish, shellfish, tofu), eggs, beans, peas, and plain nonfat yogurt.
WW Freestyle also introduces the ability to roll over SmartPoints from one day to the next, so members can better plan and budget points for a night out or special occasion. In the past, WW encouraged members to eat all (or most) of their daily SmartPoints, but now up to four points can be rolled over from a day during the week.
Weight Watchers Freestyle Food List
To better understand food choices when budgeting daily SmartPoints, here are common foods and their associated Weight Watchers SmartPoints values.
Fruits, Vegetables, Legumes:
1 cup most any green vegetable or leafy green: 0 SmartPoints
One medium apple: 0 SmartPoints
1 cup grapes: 0 SmartPoints
½ cup black beans: 0 SmartPoints
1 cup plain, non-fat Greek yogurt: 0 SmartPoints
1 cup vanilla non-fat Greek yogurt: 6 SmartPoints
3 oz. cooked skinless chicken breast: 0 SmartPoints
3 oz. cooked ground beef (5% fat): 3 SmartPoints
3 oz. cooked ground beef (7 to 10% fat): 4 SmartPoints
3 oz. cooked ground beef (20% fat): 6 SmartPoints
2 eggs scrambled: 0 SmartPoints
2 eggs scrambled using butter and milk: 2 SmartPoints
1 veggie and cheese omelet: 11 SmartPoints
1 6-in corn tortilla: 2 SmartPoints
½ cup white rice: 3 SmartPoints
1 6-in flour tortilla: 3 SmartPoints
1 cup penne pasta: 5 SmartPoints
1 cup orange juice: 6 SmartPoints
Why Is Weight Watchers So Successful?
While there are other commercial diet plans that offer flexibility, a variety of food options, lifestyle changes, accountability, and long-term maintenance, Weight Watchers is one of the few to offer all of them. Here’s a breakdown of each component:
With the freedom to choose foods within a daily SmartPoints goal, you can easily modify your plan to fit almost any need, age, or diet restriction. Also, the ability to calculate SmartPoints using nutrition information makes it easy to incorporate new products and restaurant foods.
Additionally, designating foods with point values—instead of calorie counts of nutrient grams—helps maintain the enjoyment of eating. Even though we’re still talking numbers, SmartPoints are an abstract measure that seem to be harder to get hung up over psychologically.
2. No Food Is Off-Limits
In previous diet reviews I’ve written, namely Whole30, Keto, and carb-cycling, I’ve included a section about which foods are “allowed” and which to “avoid.” While I understand the appeal of more restrictive, defined plans to consumers, it goes against the principle that any whole food can fit into a healthy diet. On the other hand, without at least some parameters, being able to eat any type of food feels like almost too much freedom.
Weight Watchers strikes the perfect balance as one of the only commercial diets to incorporate all whole foods and food groups while establishing structure for accountability and flexibility. This system not only makes the plan feel doable in the long-term, but it also prevents you from feeling guilty if you eat a slice of birthday cake every now and then.
3. Focus on Lifestyle Choices
Weight and food are key to Weight Watchers, but they are not the sole focus. Whether it’s walking or taking an exercise class, activity is encouraged and tracked through the Weight Watchers app. You can also sync the app with several popular brands of activity monitors and apps.
Additionally, a former program called “Beyond the Scale” taught members how to have a healthier relationship with the number on the scale. By focusing on the bigger picture—adopting healthy, long-term habits and making small behavior changes to get there—the program conveyed how one’s weight isn’t always the only indicator of progress.
4. Accountability and Maintenance
Weekly Weight Watchers meetings and weigh-ins can help you stay on track with a weight loss goal, but the company has also recognized that this format isn’t for everyone. An online version of Weight Watchers, as well as virtual one-to-one coaching, helps members access the same resources from anywhere. All members, regardless of their plan, receive access to the Weight Watchers website, the app for activity tracking, and a large online community exclusive to the site and also on WW social media channels.
Once you reach your goal weight, WW offers several incentives to help you keep the pounds off for good. In addition to offering a maintenance version of the program, you’ll also have the opportunity for a lifetime membership with free access to online tools and resources—but only if you can maintain your goal weight for a period of time.
Are There Any Negatives to Weight Watchers?
Because choosing which foods to eat ultimately comes down to the individual, some criticize that the program’s flexibility makes less healthy food choices too accessible. You’ll find processed food products that appear as healthy (or healthier) than whole foods simply because they have similar or lower point values.
Here’s a potential SmartPoints misstep: If I receive 23 SmartPoints per day, ideally I should use my points for meals and snacks full of produce, beans, yogurt, lean protein, and whole grains. However, I could skip all of that and use my points on a candy bar and medium soda. I’m technically still within my daily SmartPoints limit, but there’s a huge difference nutritionally and health-wise between fresh produce and candy.
To meet your nutrient needs, it's important to make wholesome and healthy food choices within your points range. The Freestyle program seems to address this by designating nutrient-dense whole foods like beans, yogurt, eggs, and lean protein as zero-point foods, lower than similar processed products.
While the online version is a good option for people not keen on groups, it misses out on weekly in-person accountability—which seems to play one of the biggest roles in successful weight loss.
What’s the Verdict on Weight Watchers?
WW's longevity is partly due to regular revisions based on new science, but also to the program’s flexible, realistic approach to eating and healthy living. It’s one of the few commercial diet programs whose principles are based on making long-term changes and learning how to balance an “all foods fit” approach. Since points values aren't always an indicator of health value, it’s up to the user to make the healthier choices and a variety of foods to meet nutrient needs.
Article by Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, originally featured in Cooking Light on March 12, 2018.