Weight Watchers

Currently the world’s largest weight loss organisation, Weight Watchers was started by Brooklyn housewife Jean Nidetch when she and a group of friends decided to support each other’s efforts to eat a healthy diet and lose weight.

How does it work?

Weight Watchers offer several different programs. They offer you the options of support in their meetings which take place in over 30 countries worldwide and more recently using an online system. Few overweight people in those countries have not heard in some way about the Weight Watchers points system. This offers you a simplified method of counting your calorie and fat intake and giving you a weekly target to work towards.

Each food you eat is given a point value through the use of a formula which has essentially remained unchanged since the foundation of the program. You can either purchase a book which lists almost all foods and their respective point values or you can calculate the point value of a food with a fairly simple-to-use slide rule or electronic points calculator.

The original points formula was (still used by most today):

Points = (Calories/50) + (Fat Grams/12) - (Fiber Grams/5)

You may find if you live outside the USA that the formula you are encouraged to use is different from this. There are a couple of other formulas approved by the company to accommodate for different local food labeling protocols (such as where fiber is not shown), but the values are similar and if you're going to follow the program seriously, I recommend you invest in the official Points Guide book.

What the point values essentially tell you is how many calories the food contains and how much fat. The original formula also positively credits you for eating fiber-rich food, reflecting the health and weight loss benefits you derive from them (they make you less hungry).

If you accurately follow what is called the Flex program in the USA and the Points Program in the UK and elsewhere you first of all calculate a weekly points allowance for yourself dependent on your weight, whether you're a man or woman, your age and how active you are.

How to calculate your Weightwatchers Points allowance:

To calculate your daily points allowance, answer the following 4 questions and add the corresponding digits together...

1. Are you...?
male - 8 pts or female - 2 pts

2. What are the first two digits of your weight in pounds...?
- for example - if you weigh 175lbs then use 17 pts

3. How old are you...?
17-26 - 4 pts
27-37 - 3 pts
38-47 - 2 pts
48-58 - 1 pt
over 58 - 0 pts

4. How do you spend most of your day...?
sitting down - 0 pts
occasionaly sitting but mostly standing - 1 pt
walking most of the time - 2 pts
doing physical work most of the time - 3 pts

add all your points values up and you get your daily points allowance

Your daily points allowance is the maximum amount of food you can consume if you are not active during the week. You choose which foods you eat to give you the required number of points or less. If you exercise you gain extra points which you are allowed to consume in additional food over the cause of the week.

The Core Plan

Recently Weight Watchers introduced a new program called The Core Plan. This gives you greater freedom to eat without counting or weighing certain healthy foods, known as "Core Foods". The only restriction is that you have to stop when you're full. Effectively they're freebies(!). You are given guidelines on how to judge when to stop eating these foods, and you receive a weekly points allocation for treats, - they're the same points as you'd use on the Flex or Points Plan.

This plan seems to have come in response to the popularity of diets like Atkins and the Zone which allow you to eat certain foods without restriction, until you're full. So the big question is, what are these Core foods?

Click here for the "magic list" of Weight Watchers Core Foods.

Ongoing support - those (in)famous meetings...

What the points system gives you in terms of simplicity, the organized meetings give you in terms of support. If you are a sociable person who likes to be part of a group the coaching element provided by the weekly meetings may well be just the thing for you.

Millions of people around the world attend a Weight Watchers meeting every week. They are run by a leader who has had special training in how you run the program and in basic nutrition. Each week you will weigh in (you have the option as to whether your weight is announced to the group) and the group leader will give a short talk to the group on an aspect of nutrition or lifestyle. You will be offered plenty of advice on food preparation and you will receive plenty of recipes - all with their points values.

Weight Watchers also produces a range of snacks and other foods which are available either at meetings or, now, in most major supermarkets. You'll find the points values on all product packets.

How much does it cost?

There's a weekly charge for these sessions which varies from country to country. In the US it varies from state to state, but generally it's around $35 to join (including the first week's meeting) and $10 for each weekly session, dropping to $8 after your 8th week. In the UK you'll pay £9 to join and £4.95 per week after that.

National Health Services and some private health schemes are now funding membership of Weight Watchers for some patients:

Click here to find out if your US Health Insurance Plan will pay for classes

Click here for info on the UK NHS paying for your classes

How effective is it?

In terms of the number of people they have reached throughout the world, Weight Watchers is the most successful weight loss program you will find on the market. You will find it difficult to find accurate figures as to the effectiveness of one diet over another.

The only published study I am aware of which compared the weight losses of participants in different diets was published in the January 5th 2005 volume of the Journal of the American Medical Association . Here you will find a comparison of the effectiveness of the WeightWatchers, Atkins, Zone and Ornish diets in terms of weight loss and heart disease risk reduction.

This study placed Weight Watchers third behind the Ornish and Zone diets for weight loss but highest in terms of adherence. In other words if you started each diet, you would stick closest to the points system in this diet. The average weight loss of the 40 participants who took part in the study over 1 year was 6.6lbs although those that stuck more closely lost more. Approximately 25% of participants adhered to the plan to a level of 6/10 or better.

Unfortunately since the number of people involved in this trial was small (40 people per diet) and the fall-out rate was high across all diets in the 12 month period, it was difficult for the researchers to offer firm evidence that one diet was more effective than another.

To read my "take" of the Weight Watchers program, click here.

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