What is the Weight Watchers Diet and How Does It Work?

For people who want to lose weight, there’s no shortage of potential weight loss plans and diets to try. Obesity affects 39.6% of all adults in the United States and because of that, it’s no wonder that the weight loss industry is worth more than $70 billion as of 2018.

If you want to get rid of excess weight, you might be considering the Weight Watchers diet. It’s been around for a long time, so it’s not the shiny new kid on the block. And because the company has tweaked its program several times, you might not know what it is or how it works.

what is weight watchers

What Is The Weight Watchers Diet Plan?

Weight Watchers International was founded in 1961 by Jean Nidetch, a Queens woman who had struggled with her weight all her life. She adapted the Prudent Diet, which she tried as part of a weight loss clinic developed by the New York City Board of Health.

While the diet itself worked, Jean found that the lack of discussion and support was a problem for her. She started a support group in her apartment and by 1931, she had founded Weight Watchers, Inc.

In just five years, the company had 91 franchises in 34 states. It continued to expand rapidly. By 1978, Jean Nidetch sold the company to Heinz for $72 million.

Today, Weight Watchers has rebranded itself as WW, moving its focus from dieting to overall health and well-being.

The Evolution of Weight Watchers

In the decades since its founding, Weight Watchers has changed its weight loss program many times. This isn’t a complete list, but here are a few of its most significant changes:

  • In 1980, the company expanded its original diet plan to three levels to allow for flexibility. It included a full choice plan, a limited choice plan, and a highly-restrictive no choice plan which was only recommended for two weeks at a time.
  • The Quick Start plan was introduced in 1984. It offered a chance for members to jump-start their weight loss with a motivation-boosting restrictive diet for the first few weeks of the program.
  • 1984 also heralded the introduction of Weight Watchers at Work, which offered group meetings in offices for people who couldn’t attend community meetings. In most cases, the fees were paid by employers.
  • The well-known POINTS system was introduced in 1997. It used an algorithm to quantify food portions and allowed members total flexibility provided they stuck to their POINTS total for any given day.
  • In 2004, the company introduced its Turn Around program, which gave members a choice between using points or a Core Plan that gave them a list of foods to avoid and a list of foods they could eat “until satisfied.”
  • In 2010, the company refined the POINTS program with the glycemic index in mind, assigning higher points to starchy and higher-sugar fruits and vegetables.
  • 2015 brought the introduction of Beyond the Scale, a program designed to encourage overall health and wellness as well as an app where members could get community support.

The most recent iteration of Weight Watchers is called WW Freestyle, or WW Flex outside of the United States. We’ll talk about that next.

What is WW Freestyle?

The WW Freestyle™ Program is the latest version of the POINTS program. It’s been refined over the years and in its new form, works as part of the company’s new commitment to total health and wellness.

According to WW International, WW Freestyle™ provides SmartPoints™ that accrue daily and weekly. Every food item is assigned points based on its:

  • Calories
  • Sugar
  • Saturated Fat
  • Protein

Participants get a daily “budget” of points and can eat whatever they want if they don’t go over on their point total. There’s also a weekly budget that allows some flexibility if people want to eat in a restaurant or splurge on the weekend. Up to four weekly points can carry over from one week to the next.

Weight Watchers review

Another feature of the program is that there’s a long list of “free” foods that you can eat until you’re satisfied. These foods have calories, obviously, but making them unlimited encourages members to eat healthy foods when they snack. Here’s a selection of some of the ZeroPoint™ foods:

  • Whole eggs and egg whites
  • Skinless chicken breast
  • Salmon
  • Pickles
  • Apples
  • Beans

What foods are 0 points on Weight Watchers?

You can find a complete list of the more than 200 ZeroPoints™ foods on the WW website, here.

Does Weight Watchers Work?

The most important question to ask about Weight Watchers is, does it work? A lot of diet plans are based on highly restrictive calorie counts and deprivation. Weight Watchers has done a good job of reinventing itself, but let’s look at what the scientific community has to say.

Let’s start with the most basic calculation of calories. A kilocalorie – what we think of as a calorie – is a measure of heat. It takes approximately 3,500 kilocalories to equal one pound of weight. It’s possible to calculate the number of calories needed to maintain a person’s current weight. Eating foods worth less than that number every day should, over time, result in weight loss.

A 2005 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association compared weight loss results for four popular diets: Weight Watchers, the Zone, Atkins, and Ornish. People who followed the Weight Watcher’s diet, which restricts only calories, lost weight – but less than those who followed the Zone and Ornish diets, which focus more on micronutrients than calories.

Of course, that study was conducted well before the most recent changes to the Weight Watchers plan, so we need to dig a little deeper.

A 2017 study in the FASEB journal looked specifically at the new SmartPoints™ program to study its effectiveness. Out of 150 participants with an average BMI of 33.9, 143 completed a six-month Weight Watchers program that included instructions from certified Weight Watchers counselors and weekly meetings and weigh-ins.

Woman losing weight on Weight Watchers

At the end of the six months, the participants who completed the program had reduced their BMIs, on average, to 32.8. More than a third lost at least 5% of their body weight, a number that was deemed to be statistically significant by the researchers.

The researchers also noted that participation in the weekly meetings was directly correlated to weight loss. They concluded that Weight Watchers helps people lose weight and that the weekly meetings and support play a significant role in success.

We also found an Australian study that evaluated the cost-effectiveness of Weight Watchers as a way of reducing government expenditures associated with obesity. It concluded that making Weight Watchers available as part of an obesity program could save the Australian government millions of dollars every year.

A study in the Obesity journal looked at the relative success of people in Weight Watchers with and without the use of the ActiveLink tracker. It concluded that Weight Watchers participants lost significantly more weight than people in the control group at three months. However, the differences virtually disappeared after a year.

The study also found that using a weight loss app in conjunction with Weight Watchers online made no appreciable difference in the amount of weight lost.

Finally, we found a 2018 study that compared nine popular diets, including Weight Watchers. The researchers concluded that following any diet would help people lose weight in the short term. The study followed participants over a 12-month period. The evidence suggests that having a clearly-delineated plan to follow is more helpful to people than trying to eat less without a diet to follow.

The key takeaways from our research are:

  • Weight Watchers works for some people because it encourages healthier eating overall and isn’t as restrictive as some plans.
  • Participants who attend weekly meetings for weigh-ins and community support are far more likely to be successful with Weight Watchers than those who skip the meetings.
  • People who choose Weight Watchers Online and use the tracking app are not any more likely to lose weight than those who don’t use the app.

In other words, there’s a reason to be cautiously optimistic about Weight Watchers as a method of losing weight.

What Do We Think?

Now that we’ve reviewed the research, let’s talk about Weight Watchers in light of what we know about dieting and weight loss. Our take is that Weight Watchers can be effective for some people, but there are some potential issues with ZeroPoints™ foods. Some foods on the list, like pickles, have minimal calories and eating them is unlikely to cause weight gain. Others are more problematic.

Let’s look at chicken breast as an example. A single, 3.5 ounce serving of skinless chicken breast has 160 calories. If you ate 10 ounces of chicken breast in a day, you’d be taking in close to 500 calories as a freebie.

The argument WW gives for the freebies is that people are less likely to binge on skinless chicken breast than they are on potato chips or ice cream. That may be true, but it doesn’t address the issue of truly disordered eating.

We think WW may be helpful for some, but we’d say that anybody with disordered eating should probably look elsewhere for a weight loss solution.