I have nothing against the Weight Watchers program. On the contrary, I had been a big fan of the cognitive and behavioral psychology behind the program, long before I joined in 2014. I’ve known many people who have found great success with the program, for one simple reason: it’s sustainable. However, in December 2015, Weight Watchers made two fatal errors: the first was to introduce Oprah as their new spokesperson. The second was to radically change the program’s dietary component from the well-balanced PointsPlus, to the new, crash-diet-style SmartPoints. Both of these moves, I would submit, are the Hail Mary passes of a company that has decided to put money before its members.
Let me start, by saying that I have a great deal of respect for Oprah. She is the quintessential example of doing well and doing good. She has made positive changes in the lives of a few, and the lives of many, all while building a media empire that can be rivaled by only a few.
With that said…
Oprah famously said that she wouldn’t endorse Weight Watchers unless she was convinced that the program worked, and I have no doubt that Weight Watchers has served her well (besides netting her a cool $70 million when word got out that she’d purchased a 10% stake in the company). But, honestly, as an individual who has gained and lost hundreds of pounds, I don’t see where 60 days on the Weight Watchers plan gives her the ability to say that the program actually works.
However, Weight Watchers had their hands on a media icon, and decided to capitalize on it. Figuring that Oprah’s book endorsements can yield huge sales of obscure titles, so, too, could Oprah’s endorsement of Weight Watchers. After all, the stock price had lost over 90% of its value since March of 2012, prior to the announcement. So, one could see why an endorsement by Oprah would make the shareholders happy. But Oprah, given her weight struggles in the past, has no credibility, when she says she believes in a program, after just 60 days.
Brian: I am NOT the Messiah!
Arthur: I say you are Lord, and I should know. I’ve followed a few.
Oprah’s declaration that the Weight Watchers program works, after having only been on it for two months, is an affront to anybody who has been successful with Weight Watchers over the long haul, and carries no more veracity than her declaring something to be one of her “favorite things,” which is little more than a list of items curated by a team of Oprah’s staff, to which she sings the yes-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-yes song from History of the World Part I.
As a sidenote, I don’t mean to trivialize Oprah’s Favorite Things, as the episode gives some great merchandise to some very deserving people, but I’ve seen far too many instances, where she declares something her “favorite,” but has to have somebody else demonstrate it, because she has no idea how the thing works. I think that the same thing happened, when she declared that the Weight Watchers program works. She probably should have spent some more time on the program, so that her statement would have a little more veracity.
SmartPoints vs. PointsPlus
At each of the meetings I’ve attended—under two separate leaders—I’ve been told that SmartPoints is all about “moving beyond the scale to live a healthier life,” and how SmartPoints is “based on nutritional science.”
Let me start with the second point: Here are some other examples of diets based on “nutritional science.”
- South Beach
- The Grapefruit Diet
Just because something is said to be “based in science,” doesn’t mean that the science is good. If you look on the wall at your local Quiznos, you’ll notice that there’s a sign that says, “No mystery meat here.” I question why a sign like that is necessary. After all, doesn’t it raise more questions about what they used to put in their sandwiches? Marketing SmartPoints as being based in nutritional science does much the same thing. Of course SmartPoints are based in nutritional science, but it’s such a huge departure from PointsPlus, that it causes one to question whether PointsPlus was so horrible, that they had to completely revamp it. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the math behind both points programs.
Disclaimer: the formulas being presented here are not endorsed by Weight Watchers, as Weight Watchers does not publish this information. The PointsPlus formula is based on a wiki article, and verified by me, while the SmartPoints formula is based on my own reverse-engineering efforts.
PointsPlus is based on the following formula:
p=protein; c=carbohydrates; f=fat; r=fiber
The message here, is that, in order to lose weight and be healthy, you should consume protein, carbohydrates, and fat in a 11:9:4 ratio, with a small offset for dietary fiber. In terms of calories, the points work out this way:
- Protein: 44 calories/point
- Carbohydrates: 36 calories/point
- Fat: 36 calories/point
So, the basic message here is that you should balance your caloric intake between protein carbohydrates, and fat, with a slight preference toward protein.
The USDA’s recommendations for these three macronutrients is a little difficult to simplify into something that compares to the Weight Watchers plan, but suffice to say, it represents a healthy ratio, and really encourages a holistic view, when making food choices.
SmartPoints are calculated, based on the following formula:
k=calories; s=saturated fat; z=sugar; p=protein
In other words, every 33 calories is a point, but that’s not all. In addition, every 3⅔ grams of saturated fat is another point, and every 8¼ grams of sugar is yet another point! You do get some relief, though: every 10⅓ grams of protein will deduct a point.
Paving the road to Hell
The SmartPoints program encourages a diet, which is light in saturated fats and sugars, while rewarding foods high in protein. I take no issue with that philosophy, but the heavy-handedness with which the program treats fat and sugar, combined with the overall reduction in daily caloric intake renders the program unsustainable.
For my part, I have seen little change in the number of daily points that I am allotted in the Weight Watchers program. However, before figuring bonuses and penalties for saturated fat, sugar, and protein, my base caloric intake has been reduced by almost 20%, and that’s assuming I eat enough protein, to balance the saturated fat and sugar intake!
Under PointsPlus, I was able to consume a healthy number of calories per day, and still lose weight, without feeling that I was depriving myself. However, the reduction in calories, combined with the further penalties for eating sugar—whether added or natural—and saturated fat, make it very clear that depriving one’s self of desserts and snacks, is part and parcel to the new program tm6za8g.
But it gets worse…
The program actually discourages healthy eating, from a points-bang-for-your-buck perspective. Setting aside the zero-point foods, most of which are the same as they were under PointsPlus, we’ve found, through our own research, that certain multigrain breads are double (or even triple) the points, per slice, of their more artificially-flavored, chemical-ridden counterparts.
As an example, consider Dave’s Killer Bread Powerseed (thin sliced). The ingredient list, is as follows:
- Organic whole wheat
- organic whole wheat flour
- organic cracked whole wheat
- Powerseed Mix
- Organic whole flax seeds
- Organic ground whole flax seeds
- Organic rolled oats
- Organic sunflower seeds
- Organic pumpkin seeds
- Organic un-hulled black sesame seeds
- Organic un-hulled brown sesame seeds
- Organic fruit juices
- Organic oat fiber
- Organic wheat gluten
- Sea salt
- Organic cultured whole wheat
Good stuff. Nothing bad here, nothing artificial. Three points for two 28g slices (weightwatchers.com incorrectly lists it as 32g).
For two points, you can enjoy two 22.5g slices of Sara Lee 45 Calories & Delightful 100% Multi-Grain bread. Check out this ingredient list (copied from the bag, because Sara Lee doesn’t publish this information on their website):
- Whole wheat flour
- Wheat gluten
- Modified wheat starch
- Whole grains
- Bulgur wheat
- Cellulose fiber
- Soybean oil
- Calcium Propionate
- Sorbic Acid
- Mono- and diglycerides
- Natural flavor
- Wheat bran
- Cellulose gum
- Calcium Sulfate
- Monocalcium phosphate
- Ground flaxmeal
- Res A (natural stevia leaf sweetener)
- Soy Lecithin
- Citric acid
- Grain vinegar
- Honey solids
- Potassium Iodate
But, hey, your reward for eating this garbage, is that it has only ⅔ the SmartPoints value of Dave’s Killer Bread.
There are plenty of other examples of how poorly SmartPoints has nothing to do with healthy eating. 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate is 11 points. That’s one point less than a chili cheese dog!
Sacrificing health for shareholder value
One need look no further than Weight Watcher’s stock price, to realize that it’s a company that suffers from poor management. But, at least those of us who participated in the program, believed in its ability to create meaningful dietary changes that would result in long-term health benefits. With SmartPoints, Weight Watchers has joined the ranks of the fad diets. Label it with catchy marketing phrases, like “Moving Beyond the Scale” all you want, but, at the end of the day, Weight Watchers has officially jumped the shark.
But, what else could they do? The company was on the ropes financially, and had to do something, to keep the shareholders happy. So, they went for the quick buck. Put Oprah in front of the cameras, and come up with a diet plan that is completely unsustainable, thus guaranteeing that people will come back within a few months after leaving the program, when all of the weight comes back, and ride on Weight Watchers’s reputation for having a sustainable program for weight loss, to make people feel like it’s their fault for leaving the program. All the while, Oprah makes more money, and the shareholders are kept happy, at the expense of the members, whose weight is yo-yoing, depending upon whether or not they can actually stay on the program for more than a few months at a time.
The company’s desperation was underscored by the release schedule of the new program. In order to beat the new year’s rush of new members, and attempt to get this terrible new program socialized with the existing members (and absorb whatever attrition might result), they released the new program in November. None of the technology was ready at that point. Ask anybody who tried to use the apps or the website, and they will tell you that it was fraught with problems. It would be months before things would be cleaned up to the point that they were useable.
As a sidenote, on July 9, 2008, Apple introduced MobileMe, its replacement for its .Mac online service. For reasons well-documented elsewhere, the service was completely unavailable for two days, after which the service ran, more or less, smoothly. Famously, Steve Jobs gathered the whole of the Internet Services staff in Apple’s Town Hall in Cupertino, and proceeded to fire a number of key people involved in what he referred to as a “f**king disaster.” Apparently, Weight Watchers completely lacks this (or, for that matter, any) standard for its online services, which are truly part and parcel to one’s success with the program. The fact that Dan Crowe (Weight Watchers’s CTO) still has a job, is completely beyond my comprehension, and points directly to the priority that Weight Watchers puts on facilitating its members’ success.
Just go back to what works
PointsPlus was effective.
It worked, and was compatible with a broad range of lifestyles, whether you cooked your own food, or frequented restaurants. When you look at the health implications of SmartPoints, combined with the poor choice in endorsers, combined with the failed technology rollout, it begs the question: If it wasn’t broken, then why did Weight Watchers decide to “fix” it?
It certainly had nothing to do with the health or wellbeing of its members—at least the ones who don’t own stock in WTW.