015: Weight Watchers – Diet Breakdown

A man using the Weight Watchers app and a woman on a zoom call with other Weight Watchers members.
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This week on Nutri-iQ Radio we’re talking all about Weight Watchers with another diet breakdown. We’re going to learn how Weight Watchers works, how it gets results, how it’s changed over the years and how just like every other diet it all just boils down to calorie balance.


A Brief History of Weight Watchers

Weight Watchers is one of the biggest and most well-known diet plans in the world. I can almost guarantee that you know at least one person who’s tried it in the past – maybe that person is you!

Weight Watchers started way back in 1963 by a lady called Jean Nidetch. It was initially just a weekly meetup of a few of her friends at her house for a little weight loss check in. Who knew those weekly meetings would eventually grow and expand all over the world?

Since it first started out the Weight Watchers diet plan has been revamped and revitalised a number of times to become what it is today. It first started out as what’s known as a food exchange programme. A food exchange programme is basically a portion-sizing approach to eating. The first Weight Watchers plan was very similar to the diet recommended for diabetics in which one “portion” contains 15g of carbohydrates. You aim for a certain number of portions of each food group – starchy carbs, meat, dairy, and so on – based on your BMI. Your BMI determines your calories to aim for each day, and you work out your daily portions from there.

That was version 1 and Weight Watchers kept up the exchange programme for a few decades. Then, in the 90’s, they switched over to the all-new Points system. All foods were assigned a certain number of points; based on the calorie, fat and fibre content of the food.

You were then assigned a certain number of points to aim for, again based on your age, sex, height and weight. Pretty straightforward. Just aim for the number of points you’re assigned, and you should lose weight.

Say Hello To SmartPoints

In 2015 the points system has something of an overhaul and became SmartPoints. This felt like a step in the right direction to many of us in the fitness industry outside of Weight Watchers because SmartPoints now took protein content into account. A nutrient we know to be very important when it comes to weight management.

Instead of points being calculated based on calories, fat and fibre content; SmartPoints are now calculated based on the calorie, protein, saturated fat and sugar content of food. Again, you’re given a certain amount of SmartPoints to aim for each day and each week based on your age, sex, height and weight.

Notice that your age, sex, height and weight are the same things you’d put into a calorie calculator to find out your daily calorie needs. And also remember that both points and SmartPoints are based on calorie content for the most part. So all you’re actually doing is counting calories, just with some other stuff thrown into the mix.

As I mentioned, calories are the main thing SmartPoints are based on. Then if a food is a good source of lean protein that reduced how many SmartPoints it’s worth, while foods high in saturated fat and sugar are worth more points.

Weight Watchers, or WW as it’s now formally known, describe their SmartPoints like this:

“SmartPoints is our way of making nutrition science simple, and is designed to help guide you to a healthier pattern of everyday eating.

Our SmartPoints system assigns every food and drink a point value – one simple, easy-to-use number based on calories, saturated fat, sugar, and protein.”

WW Website

SmartPoints are basically intended to make eating a nutritious, balanced diet, easier to think about. Rather than thinking about calories, protein, carbs, fats and every single vitamin and mineral, you only have to think about that one number. Which I quite like the idea of to be honest.

And so do a lot of other people, there’s a reason Weight Watchers has been around for so long. By making high protein foods worth fewer points, and foods high in sugar and fat worth more points, Weight Watchers is nudging you in the direction of choosing more nutrient-dense foods more often, which is great!

ZeroPoint Foods?

That brings us on to what are known as ZeroPoint foods. These are foods that are so nutritious, and so nutrient-dense, that you don’t have to keep a track of them. Again, these have changed recently. ZeroPoint foods used to only include fruit and veg, which kind of makes sense because they’re very low in calories and difficult to overeat. But ZeroPoint foods now include things like skinless chicken and eggs. Nutritious foods that are high in protein, yeah. Again, the idea is that you’re not likely to overeat on these nutritious foods.

However, this is where we start to run into the drawbacks of the SmartPoints system. Because you CAN overeat on them. You can overeat on anything to be fair, but being told you don’t have to track something often makes people feel like they can go absolutely nuts on it. It DOES say on the website:

“Just because you don’t have to track ZeroPoint foods, it doesn’t mean they’re all-you-can-eat, or that they’re the only things you should eat. 

We recommend that you start with an amount that seems reasonable to you, based on what you’ve typically eaten in the past. For example, if eggs are a ZeroPoint food on your plan and you normally put two eggs in your omelette, keep doing that. Now isn’t the time to increase that to four eggs just because they’re zero.” END QUOTE

WW Website

That makes sense, and well done for stating that. But if I get to a party with a bouncy castle and you tell me adults are allowed on: my shoes are off and I’m trying to do backflips before you finish your sentence to say “after the kids go home”.

And this is what tends to happen with adults who’ve been told there are foods that they don’t have to track. We’re a fakeaway boneless bucket in before you can finish the message to say that doesn’t mean you eat as much as you want.

So if we’re not fully aware of our calorie intake, if it’s masked by a few other things, it’s easy to find ourselves lost and wondering why we’re not losing weight when we seem to be doing everything right.

In another example of how SmartPoints work, Weight Watchers explains this on their website, showing a sandwich with some yoghurt, and a doughnut side by side:

  • The sandwich (Warburton Thins with 30g wafer thin ham, salad and 1 tablespoon of reduced-fat mayo) and the 120g pot of 0% fat Greek-style yoghurt adds up to 241 calories. The doughnut is also 241 calories.
  • However, the sandwich and yoghurt add up to 5 SmartPoints, whereas the doughnut has a SmartPoints value of 10.

They’re making the point here that the calories are the same but the nutrition isn’t. So SmartPoints aim to show you the nutritional difference as well as the calorific one. Makes sense.

Now the way we see things at Nutri-iQ – and we explained this subtle difference in more detail in last week’s podcast – if your main goal is to lose weight, we’d rather you be fully aware of your calorie intake because, at the end of the day, that’s what your weight loss comes down to. Obviously, we want you to eat nutritious foods too because the nutrients are how we improve our health, but we trust you’re wise enough to know that yoghurt and granola is more nutritious than a doughnut. Right?

So What Does The Research Say About Weight Watchers?

Well, a study published in April 2015 in the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine found study participants using Weight Watchers consistently lost more weight than those not on the diet. While almost 3 per cent showed greater weight loss after a year, it was unclear whether WW was more successful than behavioural counselling.

Research has also shown the WW diet to be effective for people with type 2 diabetes. One study published in October 2017 in the journal BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care found almost one-half of participants referred to WW had a reduced risk of developing diabetes or had blood sugar levels return to normal.

This all makes sense because as we’ve mentioned, SmartPoints aim to help you eat an all-round healthier, more balanced diet. With a controlled number of calories, and more nutrient-dense foods.

An earlier study published in the American Journal of Medicine showed those on WW were 8.8 times more likely to drop 10 per cent of their body weight after six months compared with those who took a self-help approach using weight loss printouts and websites. What’s more, researchers found participants lost more weight the more they engaged with WW tools — specifically meetings, the WW website, and the program’s mobile app which includes an online community forum.

Again, this makes sense. We know that any kind of coaching is far more effective than just being given information. That’s why years of government advice to “eat better and be more active” hasn’t been super effective. And this is true whether it’s 1-1 coaching, group coaching, or even app-based coaching. Being walked through the process, feeling supported and being able to ask questions to clarify things as you go is a hugely important part of the journey.

A meta-analysis (which is a study of studies) published in August 2016 in the journal Patient Preference and Adherence found people were more successful in sticking to their weight loss program if they had some kind of social support system in place, again whether that’s in the form of group sessions, peer coaches, or a “buddy” program.

One study cited in the meta-analysis even found that people with a support system in place were 37 percent more likely to maintain their weight loss compared with those who tried to do it alone.

So it’s understandable why so many feel like the Weight Watchers workshops and similarly the Slimming World weekly meetings are such a popular part of those programmes. It’s the feeling of being part of something, of being around people like us that makes us want to stay a part of that something.

Community Is Everything

You might have heard the saying that you’re a product of the 5 people you spend the most time with. If the people you usually spend time with don’t eat well, don’t exercise and are a little overweight as a result, you’re likely to fall into those same habits and end up the same way. So on the flip side, if you suddenly surround yourself with people that are paying attention to their diet, finding new ways to exercise and are excited about the journey to a healthier life, you’ll be far more likely to adopt and keep up those habits and keep those results, too.

But bear in mind that the people leading Weight Watchers workshops aren’t nutrition professionals, they’re just people who’ve seen success with the programme themselves in the past. So although they might understand and empathise with your experience in following the programme, they often won’t have the best understanding of the actual nutritional and behavioural science to be able to help you get the best out of it.

Workshops can be a great place for support on the journey. But many people report the feeling of judgement, guilt and shame as a result of seeing their weight go up and down week to week. This probably often depends on the group itself and the group leader in how they explain these changes and help you understand the process.

But as I said, if their only experience is their own previous group leader, they might not understand and be able to pass on to you, the understanding that your weight WON’T always go down, even if you do everything right. Because things just don’t work that way.

Sometimes you’ve eaten a more carby meal, or more salt, or drank more water or just haven’t been to the toilet to get rid of the pound or two of food you last ate.

This is where it’s important to find the RIGHT people to surround yourself with. People who can both empathise with your journey AND have the knowledge to be able to help you understand what’s going on when things don’t go the way you expect.


To wrap up this week’s episode and this diet breakdown let’s go over a quick summary of Weight Watchers and how it all works.

Weight Watchers counts SmartPoints, which is their way of combining calories, protein, fat and sugar content down into just one simple number to keep track of. This simplicity works well for a lot of people, but it also leaves room for error in terms of overall calorie balance, especially when we start talking about foods that are worth zero points. This explains why somebody might hit their SmartPoints target, but feel like they’ve hit a plateau and aren’t making any progress.

SmartPoints are largely based on calories, so by tracking SmartPoints, you’re also tracking calories. Which tells us that just like every other diet, Weight Watchers just boils down to calorie balance at the end of the day. Because you are effectively just counting calories, but with a few other things thrown in.

Workshops and the community are a big part of the Weight Watchers programme. Studies show that having some kind of support makes you more likely to maintain your weight loss, but bear in mind that the leaders of the workshops aren’t trained professionals, just people who’ve also gone through the programme so take their advice with a pinch of salt.

So! We want to hear YOUR thoughts on Weight Watchers. If it’s something you’ve tried before, what was your experience? Did you find SmartPoints easy to track? Did you find the weekly workshops useful or were your workshops more critical than constructive?

Send an email to shaun@nutri-iq.net and use the subject line “podcast” to let us know your story.

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