Joining up to slim down: Weight Watchers

We took a look at Weight Watchers to find out: is it right for you?

For many people, joining a weight-loss programme is a big step. But for some people, the special elements that come with a slimming programme can make the difference between success and failure. The money you pay for a programme, the fact that you have to 'check in' each week and ongoing coaching are elements that help to keep you on the straight and narrow.

So hypothetically speaking, if you had to choose a weight-loss programme which one would you go with? Common sense says that any logical strategy will work if you stay with it for long enough, but you can only stick with a
programme if it suits your psychology and lifestyle.

Probably the most well-known weight-loss programme in the world, Weight Watchers was created around 40 years ago by Jean Nidetch, a cookie-obsessed, 214 pound (97kg) American housewife. Nidetch organised casual weekly meetings in her home, where overweight women could talk about their problems with food and support each other in the quest for weight-loss.

Today, it's estimated that more than one million people around the planet attend a Weight Watchers meeting every week. Weight Watchers operates in 30 countries through a network of company-owned and franchise operations.

Over the years the Weight Watchers programme has evolved to reflect changing times, but always the food plans have been about kilojoule and portion control. You're in the driver's seat, choosing foods and serving sizes,  although there are weekly menus that you can follow.

  • At the heart of the programme is the requirement to attend a weekly meeting. After weighing in, you listen to a motivating speech by your group leader and join in on discussions. If you miss a meeting, nobody's going to check up on you – however, you generally have to pay for missed meetings. Weight Watchers meetings are hosted by 'leaders' – people who have successfully lost weight themselves and attended a Weight Watchers training course.
  • Weight Watchers offers members a choice of two eating approaches – the points plan and the core plan. The points plan lets you eat any food you like, provided you don't exceed a daily points allowance. The core plan limits you to a list of high volume, low GI foods but requires minimal counting.
  • Exercise is encouraged and rewarded with bonus food points. One of the weekly booklets focuses specifically on getting more activity into your day. Members are given new printed material every time they attend a meeting and for the first nine weeks you receive a booklet with programme material to work through in your own time. Each booklet is numbered and has a specific theme.
  • Various accessories are sold at the meetings – recipe books, scales, snack bars and step counters.
  • Although members choose and prepare their own food, a range of Weight Watchers kilojoule- and portion-controlled products are available at the supermarket. Weight Watchers has a website for general information about the programme and the science of weight-loss. The site includes a forum where members can share their recipes, successes and failures.
  • People who don't live handy to a Weight Watchers meeting can join Weight Watchers on-line, which is accessed through the website.
  • When you reach your goal weight, you go onto a maintenance plan. After a certain time at your goal weight, you will be given 'lifetime membership', which means you can attend Weight Watchers meetings any time and at any place for no charge, provided you're within two kilos of your goal weight.

Weight Watchers programmes are developed by health professionals who specialise in weight management. The organisation also has a scientific advisory board and has published original studies that support the effectiveness of Weight Watchers programmes. Research was used to identify the two current eating approaches:

The points plan lets you eat any food as long as you keep track and control how much you eat. Every food has a point value, which has been calculated based on the kilojoules and grams of saturated fat. Your individual points allowance is based on current weight, age and activity level.

The core plan focuses on a list of core foods covering all the food groups: fruits and vegetables; grains and starches; lean meats, fish and poultry; eggs and dairy products. Foods on the list have been chosen to keep you feel as full as possible. They are low in energy density and have limited potential for overeating. Every week you have a ration of points to spend on foods that aren't on the list (such as wine, biscuits and other treats) – you need to keep track of these.

Our nutritionist comments

"I like the Weight Watchers plan for its simplicity, support and the way they educate their members. They do provide a lot of information for members over the course of the first couple of months, but it's all straightforward and practical.

If you use the points plan it may be a bit like 'kilojoule counting', but they've made it a lot simpler. It seems to me their plan would really help people understand portion control, which foods can be eaten at liberty and which foods need to go into the 'occasional' file.

One of the strengths of Weight Watchers is the group support from people with the same issues – yet for some that will be off-putting. Weight Watchers won't be for everyone but it is worth looking at if you need help."

Using the services of a dietitian or nutritionist is an increasingly popular and discreet approach to weight reduction and control. You'll generally get a personalised eating plan, weigh-ins as often as you need them and  high-quality coaching. A qualified nutritionist or dietitian can also help you overcome or manage health challenges such as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

One of the simplest and most useful weight loss tools is the food diary, frequently insisted on by nutritionists and weight loss programmes. Start by recording everything you eat and drink each day for a week. You can then review your normal diet and evaluate where you can make changes. Set some goals and keep recording. Without the aid of an external tracking device, few of us could accurately recall what we've eaten in a day, sot he food diary helps us be honest with ourselves.  Many people add a record of their exercise as well.

Jenny Craig

First published: Nov 2007

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