Is Weight Watchers Good for Your Health?
"This is the joy for me. I love bread," declares Oprah, her arms open wide to the possibilities of her Weight Watcher's Plan. "I have lost 26 pounds, and I have eaten bread every single day." The commercial's emphasis on bread is a visceral call to a nation convinced that the hunger-satisfying power of starch is the cause of our obesity epidemic. Oprah's declaration that she has lost weight while daily enjoying bread gives hope to multitudes of starch-starved adherents of diets which sacrifice all on the altar of protein.
In his book, Proteinaholic, bariatric surgeon Garth Davis, MD, reports on a typical conversation he has with obese patients who come to him for gastric bypass surgery. "Their diet logs are a veritable animal graveyard," says Dr. Davis. "If I ask them why they think they're not losing weight--why, in fact their weight is going up--they never blame the jerky, the chicken, or, God-forbid, the bacon. Instead they look ashamed and mutter, 'Carbs.'" Then the patients admit to allowing themselves the bun with the burger or a doughnut during Sunday brunch. Enter Oprah and the promise of daily bread.
In October, 2015, Oprah Winfrey acquired a 10% stake in Weight Watchers, a company that offers tools and personalized coaching for weight loss and lifestyle management. With Oprah's involvement, the Weight Watchers program has been redesigned, and the new shareholder has become the face of the company, inviting viewers to join the "New Weight Watcher's Experience."
What's new about this redesigned program and will following the Weight Watcher's program lead to optimal health? Let's compare Weight Watchers (WTW) to a low-fat, whole-foods, plant-based (WFPB) no-added-oil diet--a diet that science has consistently demonstrated can prevent, halt, and often reverse disease.
Optimal Health vs Losing Weight
Low-fat, WFPB, no-added-oil diets are based on an ancient style of eating that focuses on unprocessed or minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods. Most advocates encourage centering meals on starch (beans, potatoes, winter squash, and whole grains) in order to satisfy energy needs. Since low-fat, WFPB, no-added-oil meals are naturally low in calories but high in satiety (feeling comfortably full), most people find that their weight normalizes with little to no effort. A low-fat, WFPB, no-added-oil diet emphasizes eating for nutrition, energy, and optimal health rather than primarily focusing on caloric intake. The vast majority of people who adopt this eating style are motivated by the diet's proven track record of prevention of or recovery from disease. Weight control and feeling energetic are natural byproducts of the diet.
By contrast, the WTW program is a point-based system designed to help members control their caloric intake. The program has recently been redesigned and now is based on SmartPoints™, numerical values assigned to foods. WTW says that the numbers-based plan "nudges you toward a healthy pattern of eating and translates complex nutritional information into one simple, but very powerful, number." They call it their "strongest stance ever on eating healthier."
The blog Hungry Girl explains the system: "The SmartPoints™ value starts with the calorie count; protein lowers the value, while saturated fat and sugars increase that number." Apparently vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients are not accounted for in the point system. The point value of some dairy products has gone up with the redesign, but vegetables and unprocessed fruits count for zero SmartPoints™, allowing limitless consumption. The exception is smoothies and other blended fruits, presumably because of the sugar that hits the bloodstream once blending has separated the fiber from the sugar. Each WTW member is assigned daily and weekly SmartPoints™ to "spend" as they eat. Although WTW urges members to see how good they'll feel when they "go beyond the scale" by engaging in exercise and other health-promoting practices, losing weight is the primary reason people join the program.
Choosing Points over Nutrition
While allowing limitless unprocessed fruits and vegetables is a terrific aspect of the WTW plan, there are several troubling components when we consider the diet in light of optimal health. WTW says that no foods are off-limits. So, as Oprah reported to People magazine, her friend Gayle decided to spend all but seven of her SmartPoints™ on cronuts one day. (A cronut, according to Wikipedia, is a croissant-doughnut pastry "made by frying a laminated dough in grape seed oil. The fried pastry is then sugared, filled, and glazed.") Gayle's choice of a sugar-sweetened, deep-fried, refined flour, dairy-filled processed food was perfectly within the WTW plan since she did not exceed her allowed SmartPoints™. Staying within her points may have allowed Gayle to continue losing weight due to the calorie-restricting nature of the WTW point system, but it does not protect her from the disease-provoking inflammation that is our body's response to such foods. Of course, Gayle's choice was probably a one-time holiday indulgence, but this incident highlights the weakness of relying on calorie restriction for weight loss: it's possible to lose weight and not truly gain health. In his book, Dr. Davis tells the true story of a professor who adopted a "convenience store diet" for two months, losing 27 pounds while munching primarily on snack cakes and chips. Keeping calorie intake below energy output is the key to all weight loss, regardless of the nutritional value of the food consumed.
WTW Guidelines May Steer Toward Disease
In addition to the calorie-restriction of the SmartPoints™ program, WTW offers "8 Good Health Guidelines" to help members structure their eating. These guidelines include two cups of milk products per day. While fairly common advice, we know from scientific research that dairy products are linked to increased risk of various cancers, cardiovascular disease, acne, constipation, and aging. Further, dairy doesn't protect our bones. A 12-year Harvard study followed 78,000 women who drank milk three times a day; they actually broke more bones than women who rarely drank milk.
The guidelines also emphasize the macronutrient protein in the form of meat. "Make sure you get enough" is the bold heading -- although the description below the heading explains that a daily serving or two is sufficient. The fine print is easily overlooked in a culture primed for protein. Dr. Davis relates that even when presented with information that there is easily enough protein in their diet, his overweight patients continued to overeat on animal products, worried that they might not be getting enough protein. With a serving of lean protein like turkey being worth 1 point, it is easy to see how WTW members could likewise eat more than the recommended daily servings. On the blog Danica's Daily, there was celebration over how the new SmartPoints™ makes it easier to fit more lean meats into the diet: "You can see most lean proteins going down [in point value] and in crazy, awesome ways." Animal foods contain what has been called "the demonic trinity of western diseases; artery-clogging saturated fat, plaque-promoting dietary cholesterol, and tumor and cancer-promoting animal protein." Further, science tells us that meat consumption is correlated with weight gain, so the allowance of meat in the WTW program may actually work against the goal of weight loss.
Fruits and Veggies Lost in the Point System
At least five half-cup servings of fruits and vegetables are encouraged in the WTW guidelines. With unprocessed fruits and veggies being worth zero SmartPoints™, one would expect that members would take advantage of the satiety-providing power of plants. This isn't always the case. In the article, "Why I Love Weight Watchers but Would Never Go Back" on the blog Summer Tomato, lifetime member E. Foley describes her experience with WTW over the years. She says, "The problem with Weight Watchers is that as long as you lose weight, no one questions what you’re eating. I wish I still had my food journals from those days, because I can tell you I went full weeks without consuming a vegetable or fruit." While Foley's experience with WTW wasn't under the new SmartPoints™ system, it is easy to see how the lack of points assigned to health-promoting foods like fruits and veggies means that members can eat as many -- or as few -- of them as they like. The zero points could easily be interpreted as a lack of importance. Commenting on the recommendation, Joel Fuhrman, MD, says "Weight Watchers recommends a miniscule five total (half-cup) daily servings of fruits and vegetables combined; not nearly enough to achieve disease prevention." Regularly consuming colorful fruits and vegetables helps prevent degenerative disease and promotes optimal health.
"Healthy Oil" Myth Perpetuated
And then there's the oil. WTW's "Good Health Guidelines" further promote the myth of "healthy oils" by suggesting two teaspoons of them daily. The problem here is that there are no healthy oils. The best dietary fats come as part of whole foods and can be eaten sparingly by healthy individuals; however, those recovering from disease conditions like obesity should severely limit their intake of high-fat foods like nuts and avocados while avoiding coconut all together (due to its high saturated fat content). Oil is known to harm the single-layer of cells which line our arteries. When these cells -- called the endothelium -- are damaged, our arteries become hardened, raising our blood pressure. After years of this abuse, our arteries become scarred over with atherosclerotic plaques, and we are at elevated risk for heart attacks and strokes.
In his evaluation of the Weight Watchers program, Dr. Fuhrman notes that as a calorie-restricting system based solely on body weight, the WTW system ignores larger health issues "such as body composition, immune system function, disease reversal and prevention, and longevity potential." On the other hand, a low-fat, whole-foods plant-based, no-added-oil diet promotes weight loss, improves immune system function, prevents and reverses disease, and increases the potential for longevity. Even if weight loss is our primary goal, a WFPB diet will make it easy to reach our desired weight because plant foods are high in satiety while being low in calories. We end up eating more to weigh less plus we enjoy the increased energy that comes with improved health.
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