For many people, weight loss can be an elusive goal. You try one diet…and then another… cycling your weight up and down. And so most recently, you tried Weight Watchers and found that you’re not losing weight as expected?
So frustrating, right? What’s really going on here?
As an Intuitive Eating Dietitian and former dieter, I help my clients to claim their healthiest eating plan and break free of weight-loss dieting. So many of my own clients have had complicated relationships with their own weight loss, eating, and body image. They enjoy hearing my perspective on diets because it isn’t what you might expect from a registered dietitian. These diet reviews are meant to help you make informed decisions and are in no means meant to discredit anyone’s beliefs. I’m simply sharing my take & recommendations!
So let’s explore! Weight Watchers is a well-known weight loss program. I purchased a membership in order to poke around and get the full scoop. In this review, I’ll cover the nuts and bolts of how the program is set up as well as why it might not be fulfilling its promise of weight loss. And finally, I’ll share if I recommend that you try Weight Watchers…or any diet.
Let’s dive in!
Quick history of Weight Watchers
Weight Watchers, or as it is now known, WW, has been around a long time. It was created more than 50 years ago by a woman named Jean Nidetch who invited friends over to discuss how to lose weight.
Since its modest start, WW has grown and evolved into a popular, global program.
Originally, it had a more simple (and far more strict) set of rules. WW was calorie-restricted and had some forbidden, never allowed foods, such as bananas and avocados. Millennials all gasp! Is this where the fear of bananas originated?
Over time, the program has evolved to a system of points that you track and “spend” as you wish. And I just gotta say, I don’t love talking about food like a financial budget. Food isn’t money to be spent.
These days, you can even find WW products at the store that are already labeled with the WW points calculated right on the package. There are blogs and round-ups, like this one, of “best WW frozen foods” and WW-friendly recipes on blogs and on Pinterest. You don’t have to look far to find WW cookbooks, protein powders, and other food products, such as snack mixes.
Weight Watchers is now known as WW with the tagline “Wellness that Works”.
So, how does it work…or does it?
How does Weight Watchers work?
Staying true to its roots, WW is a program based on tracking what you eat each day and your weight on a weekly basis, if not more often.
Set up your profile
As a WW participant, you answer several questions about yourself as you set up your profile, such as height, weight, and health goals as well as your physical activity levels. This data is used to give you your allotted points per day.
I used the average weight and height of a 20-year-old woman in the US to set up my tester profile: 170 pounds and 5’4” tall.
Weight Watchers is set up to have groups of people – all with weight loss as a goal – support, or hold one another accountable. In WW speak, these are “workshops”.
You can attend WW workshops in person or virtually. Either way, there is the expectation to weigh in. The weight is not published to the group, it is to be discussed between you and the group leader. The meeting is designed to be an accountability forum to help you to stick with your program.
In addition to the workshops, you’re responsible for tracking your daily intake of food and drinks in the WW app.
Each person is following their own personalized guidelines for weight loss, measured with points. As you eat and drink throughout the day, you deduct points. Once the points are gone, you’re done eating for the day, other than the zero points foods.
What is a bit different than many weight loss programs is the fact that there are certain foods that you don’t have to track.
WW calls those “zero points” foods. These are full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Examples of zero point foods can include:
The zero point foods that are included in your plan might be different from the ones your neighbor Tina has on hers. The way that you fill out the questionnaire can change this based on things like your preferences, goals, etc.
So what’s left? As a WW participant, your role is to track everything that does have points. For example, as I was playing around in the app, I tracked a common breakfast for myself and has points associated with:
- Peanut butter (3 points per tablespoon)
- Brown sugar (1 point per tablespoon)
- Protein powder (1 point per tablespoon)
The rest of my breakfast – oatmeal and berries – were zero-point choices.
Build healthy habits
In addition to tracking your food and weight, WW encourages you to get a good night’s sleep and exercise. There are also rewards for other healthy habits such as meditating.
I’m a big fan of anything that helps us to acknowledge and process feelings. This is called emotional self care and meditating and journaling are two habits I have and recommend that you try. More on that, right here: Emotional Self Care.
Connect with a coach
You can connect with WW coaches as much or as little as you wish. There is the option to work with coaches as needed – you can book time with coaches through the website or use the chat function to ask questions.
Coaches are folks who have been through the WW program; they don’t have any professional wellness training.
If you book an appointment with coaches, part of their profile lists “pounds lost” right under their name like a badge of honor.
So that is the WW program in a nutshell. Let’s chat about the points a bit more.
What are Weight Watchers’ points?
What counts as a point? The answer actually is proprietary.
If a food is not on the zero points food list, you’ve gotta track it.
Sometimes people ask how many weight watchers points are 1200 calories, for example, but the points are not a direct correlation to calories. WW takes into account the calories, fiber, and sugar in their secret formula.
The purpose of taking more than just calories into account is that foods that are more nutrient-dense, such as veggies and whole grains, “cost” fewer points than a fun food, like ice cream or cake.
When I logged into the app and answered the questions about activity level and lifestyle and goals, I was ‘awarded’ 23 points on a daily basis, as well as a few “weekly” points that can help you to be a bit more flexible than having to eat exactly the same thing every day. Is this a lot? I wasn’t sure what that was going to feel like until I poked around and tracked a bit.
As I mentioned above, many of the foods that I enjoy and eat regularly are actually on my zero points list.. I love berries, oatmeal,rotisserie chicken and roasted carrots.It’s important to note that each person can have different foods on their zero points list, so yours might be different from the ones I got based on how you filled out your questionnaire.
On the other hand, several other foods “cost” far more points than I would have guessed. For example, Ben & Jerry’s Grocery Phish Food Ice Cream was a whopping 22 points – that’s almost the entire day’s worth of points! This is a recipe for disaster and I’ll tell you why in a minute.
So now that we know what the points are and how the program works, is there any research about this program? Let’s discuss that next.
What does the research say about WW?
Below are a few examples of published journal articles about WW.
(BTW – this is not the kind of journal you keep under your pillow. In this case, a journal article is where the results from scientific studies are published and other healthcare professionals, such as dietitians, read them. Our goal is to ensure that what we’re recommending to our clients is the best way to go. This is what we’re talking about when we use the terms “evidence-based” and “peer-reviewed”.)
One study from 2005 found that WW lowered a few measures of cardiac risk factors, including lowering cholesterol, but that “overall dietary adherence rates were low”. This does not surprise me one bit: sticking with a restrictive diet doesn’t work long term.
A study from 2011 in the UK looked at almost 30,000 people who were referred to WW via their healthcare professionals. The study participants were able to complete 12 meetings, er, workshops in pursuit of weight loss. About 1 in 3 participants were able to see a weight loss of 5% or more of their body weight.
The authors acknowledge, and I agree, that 12 weeks is a short time to follow folks in a weight-loss study and helps me to drive this point home. Many, many diets “work” for weight loss in the short term…and then it bounces right on back. For most people the weight is regained within 1 year, and almost all is regained within 5 years.
These are just a few articles about WW, but this data is similar to what you can see in other kinds of diet interventions: oftentimes the “success” is short-term.
What are my thoughts on the program based on the research and my own experiences? Let’s cover those next.
There are some aspects of the program that I do really like. Let’s cover those first!
The way the points are calculated incentivizes you to eat nutritious foods more than “fun” foods. Of course, I like fruits and veggies. I’m a dietitian after all.
And while I like that this program promotes these foods, I don’t love that it’s at the expense of demonizing having the fun foods. Remember how the Ben & Jerry’s was almost an entire day’s worth of points? It seems like the chances of not going over the allotted points after eating something fun are slim, opening up the door to shame. WW does address this a bit with the rolling weekly points: you have a few “extra” points to use as you wish.
All foods are allowed
All foods are allowed…. technically… – even bananas, these days – but you do have to stick with the plan in order to stay on the program.
Instead of using points to determine what you should eat in a day, I recommend building trust with your own body and eating in harmony with your own hunger cues, cravings, and daily routine.
This is hella easier said than done, which is why I have a coaching program to help folks build skills and confidence and say goodbye to dieting for good. If you want to check that out, visit the SociEATy for more info.
There is flexibility
While there is a set number of points that you’re supposed to aim for, there are also weekly points to allow some ebb and flow with how you eat. This is far more realistic than expecting you to eat the exact same amount each and every day.
Sometimes it can be difficult to decide what to eat or to try to be creative with using up certain ingredients before they go bad. With the WW app, you can find recipe suggestions based on what you actually have in your fridge.
(Psst: you can do in the recipe index in The SociEATy)).
Movement and sleep are prioritized
One thing that I do like about the WW program is that it does promote health promoting behaviors, such as getting a good night’s sleep, including exercise and even meditation.
What many people believe (I used to too!) is that weight is how you can tell if someone is healthy or not. Spoiler alert: you can’t.
The truth is, our health behaviors are the real deal. But, instead of exercising for the sake of “earning” special food or trying to take off the pounds, how about exercising to celebrate what your body can do today, to tank stress, and to have a better night’s sleep? If you’re thinking, hmm, that sounds pretty good, check out this post: Fall in Love with Intuitive Exercise.
And while WW does have the option to use the app for wellness only, without a focus on weight loss, it is probably safe to guess that most folks on the app are there for the purpose of weight loss.
Ok – what are the not-so-good parts of WW? Let’s chat through a few of my thoughts so that you can decide if this program is really a good fit for you.
Tracking causes stress
We often think about tracking in terms of accountability. That is true, to a degree. But what is also true is that having to think about and log each and every bite of food is stressful. Tracking your food (not necessarily even restricting but even just monitoring!) has been observed to raise perceived stress. This? Not so great for our health.
And going over the allotted points can cause some serious (and absolutely unnecessary) shame and discomfort. Shame is not a great way to get anyone to make a positive change in their life, especially when it comes to eating. And even if the high point foods are “allowed” you’re still likely to feel in the wrong for enjoying it – which you’re totally not, BTW!
And what about tracking over the holidays, hanging out with friends, or eating at a restaurant? All things are possible with the app, the WW website does have lots of blog posts with ideas, but is it worth it, to have this hanging over your head all the time? Probably not. That would take away from you being able to live in the moment and make memories from this one amazing life that we have to live!
Enjoying food is part of living life and dieting takes that away from us. Think about it: do you want to remember enjoying the summer sunshine with your kiddos and sharing ice cream or do you want to remember them asking “Momma, why aren’t you having any?” as you eagerly type into your phone trying to see if you have enough weekly points left to make even a couple bites “fit”. Ugh, that literally hurts my heart! (And is a big reason why I now do the work that I do in the non-diet space!) What if you could, like, enjoy the ice cream AND feel good AND honor your health? Cause, ya can thanks to Intuitive Eating.
Weight loss may not be long term
I do like that there are published research articles out there exploring if WW holds up to its claims. And some show “positive” results of losing weight, but most don’t look at the participants long-term.
You know what is definitely not healthy? Weight cycling up and down, up and down.
It is also important to notice that in most studies, the dropout rate is high. So while the researchers can talk about the results for anyone who stayed in the study, they can only guess what is happening with the people who left. I have to imagine that for at least some of them, tracking all of the time and constantly having a restriction on what you’re allowed to eat became a big drag.
Weight loss might not actually mean better health
Perhaps the biggest con of all is what the diet industry is selling: weight loss will translate to better health, better self-esteem, and body image and this is the one diet that will really work.
Whomp whomp: we wouldn’t have a $78 billion dollar diet industry if there was one that “worked” long term.
We can’t assume that people in larger bodies are unhealthy and that anyone in a smaller body is healthier, happier, and more fulfilled. This is the diet industry BS talking, not real science.
What does contribute to health and wellness are your habits, such as having vegetables regularly, getting a good night’s sleep, and reducing stress.
Gorgeous: you can work on any of these things without a diet app.
You can also work on these habits that boost your health without directly pursuing weight loss.
You’re not honoring your hunger
When you let points dictate your eating, you are not connected with your natural hunger and fullness cues.
BTW: you may be thinking, “Colleen, I don’t even know what hunger feels like.” I totally get it. As an ex-dieter myself, I have personal experience with using diets to ignore my hunger cues. My body stopped sending them after I ignored them for so long – no one wants to be ignored! The good news is that with practice and trust, you can get them back. Here is How To Get Hunger Cues In 3 Easy Steps.
There is a lot in the WW app and website that you can buy. From protein shakes to water bottles, and even candles to promote better sleep, WW is happy to help you add things to your cart.
Is it fun to shop? Sure. Are they actually selling real health? Not too much.
(FYI – protein powders aren’t “good” or “bad”, they’re just a tool. I explain, right here: Is A Meal Replacement Diet A Good Fit For Me?). I use them sometimes when I want my meals to have a bit more staying power, such as when I make my Birthday Cake Protein Shake.
WW coaches are not RDNs
As a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), I am a highly trained and credentialed expert in food and nutrition. I am qualified to provide one-on-one nutrition counseling to my clients.
In contrast, WW lets people who have gone through the program and lost weight coach their peers.
Nutrition is tricky. Just because you eat and have changed your body weight does not make you an expert. And it does not mean that if someone does the same things are you that they will also have the same results. It’s funny how quickly people consider themselves to be experts …just because I know how to floss does not mean that I am a dentist, amiright?
Talking through your goals might include health diagnosis, emotional triggers, medications, and more: it’s complicated. I don’t recommend working with non-experts as you pursue your own health and wellness. Even if you’re frustrated about weight loss and they’re available in the app.
So, why am I not losing weight on Weight Watchers?
Although I don’t recommend directly targeting weight loss as a goal, you are probably curious why the program might not be working for you. Here are a few possible explanations to think through.
You can’t just decide how much you want to weigh
A good place to start is that your body has an idea of how much you should weigh based on your genes, life experiences and social determinants, eating patterns, physical activity, dietary history, and more. This weight has an actual label: your Set Point.
New term to you? Check out this post: Set Point Weight Theory: What It Is & How To Find It
Basically, you can’t just arbitrarily pick how much you think you should weigh and get there easily or maintain it long-term. And the more you try to sabotage what your body thinks you should weigh, the more likely you are going to damage your metabolism, body image, and self-esteem. No bueno.
You’re finding loopholes in the WW points
Maybe you’re overdoing it with zero-point foods?
On the website, this is covered in a FAQ: “ZeroPoint foods are tough to overeat. Sure, you could eat 13 bananas, but would you want to? Probably not. So, if you normally eat one banana a day, stick to that. Now’s not the time to start eating four bananas just because they’re zero.”
You can find bloggers who make recipes that fit into the official rules but maybe weren’t how the program creators intended those zero-point foods to be consumed. For example, a small cheesecake that is made from yogurt is low in points. And probably low in actual satisfaction…so you eat another slice and another slice. And another. In the end you’ll likely wind up eating more than you would have had you just eaten the freakin’ thing you actually wanted in the first place!
These days, instead of making diet versions of treats, I make what I am actually craving and enjoy it. Way more fun! Check out my favorite new Golden Oreo Cheesecake recipe (man was this fun to recipe test!).
You’re obsessed with food
Constantly tracking meals, steps, pounds and points can really suck the joy out of daily living.
Restriction can lead to obsession…this is a major con of dieting, including WW.
I have a full post on that, right here: The Real Reason You’re Obsessed With Food [& How To Stop!]
You can set goals without dieting. I have a podcast episode walking you through that, right here.
Key takeaways: Not losing weight on Weight Watchers
Your body has a genetic blueprint for your weight, just as it does your shoe size, natural hair color, and skin tone. You can’t just decide how much you want to weigh.
As much as WW can promise that this program is different, the truth of the matter is that diets do not live up to their guidelines long-term. And cycling your weight up and down as you try another diet and then are let down by their false promises is not healthy for your metabolism or mental health.
I recommend Intuitive Eating and working on the lifestyle behaviors that promise true health, body positivity, and more.
On my own journey to food freedom, I was beyond frustrated by the advice to just “listen to your body”. Ugh! My body, my hunger and I were so disconnected from one another that this felt legit impossible. If you’re feeling frustrated too, know that this isn’t something that you can just start doing, you need to LEARN how: this guide can help The 5 Unskippable Steps To No Food Rules…And The 5 Most Common Missteps! (and woot: it is totally free – check it out!)
The 5 Unskippable Steps To No Food Rules
Whether you’re brand spanking new to Intuitive Eating or you’ve tried it before, you’ll identify your next steps—or the missteps that left you bingeing and thinking Intuitive Eating wasn’t so intuitive for you!