He Said, She Said: Weight Watchers – Helping You Lose Since 1963

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He Said

We believe that people should have the freedom to choose whichever healthcare paths they wish to take, independent of whether or not we would recommend their selected treatment plans. Disclosure and transparency are corollaries necessary for building a foundation that supports patients as they make decisions regarding their own care. Today’s approaches are likely inferior to healthcare’s future toolbox, and part of what separates respectful collaboration from a sales pitch is candidly discussing both the pros and cons of available options so patients can make informed decisions. We are not afraid to admit “I don’t know” when that is indeed the most appropriate response. None of this makes us exceptional or great, but it does make us honest.

For a look at the flip side, consider Weight Watchers®. A magician once explained to me his secret: misdirection. He gets you to fixate on his right hand so you entirely lose track of what his left hand is doing. Weight Watchers uses ads emblazoned with their “Because It Works” slogan to capitalize – literally and figuratively – on your desire to lose weight while they hope you forget to ask for their definition of “works.” The large font in their television ads demands so much of your attention that you miss the fine print resulting from the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) action against Weight Watchers in 1997 that declared they must concede that “For many dieters, weight loss is temporary.” In reference to the commonplace weight regain that prompts clients to re-enroll in the program time and time again, Richard Samber, Weight Watchers’ former financial director, explained, “That’s where your business comes from.” Weight Watchers is profitable, in other words, because it can successfully create short-term weight loss and make you believe that their long-term failures are actually your own.

Weight Watchers distracts you with their glittery new SmartPointsTM system and hopes you will ignore the long list of previous systems, including the Weight Watchers Program Handbook for Ladies, the Quick SuccessTM Program, the original PointsTM program, and PointsPlusTM, that never worked nearly as well as they wanted you to believe at the time. Weight Watchers is not changing their program because “Now we’re enhancing our program based on the latest science,” as their Chief Scientific Officer, Gary Foster, wants you to believe; nor are they changing their program because they suddenly uncovered data showing its poor efficacy. This is not a case of “When we know better, we do better.” They knew for decades that their program was not working as well as their large print made you believe, but they continued to promote it anyway, and when forced by law to tell the truth, they wrote it so small that you probably missed it.

Despite their spin that Weight Watchers always worked and now they are just making it even better, Weight Watchers is changing for one reason: money. Over the last four years, the company has seen their stock plummet from $85.00 to $6.80 per share as customers and potential customers have turned instead to weight-loss apps or more holistic approaches. To combat the former, they are launching a new mobile app and an expanded coaching program that offers more extensive support outside of group meetings. Their response to the latter involves some sleight-of-hand trickery. “Beyond the Scale” appears to be the new slogan, replacing “Because It Works,” and their company logo has been tightened up to two letters, thus removing the word “weight.” Seeing as they are so poor at creating long-term weight loss, taking the focus off the scale would make sense, but it is just a surface-level marketing ploy. Taking a closer look reveals that weight is still the focal point of their approach.

A Weight Watchers spokeswoman recently told Good Morning America, “People would really spend a lot of time trying to figure out ‘How do I get my Doritos in? Oh, I can do it if I adjust this and adjust that.’ Now it’s not as important for them to make sure how they are getting their Doritos in. It’s much more important for them to say, ‘What am I putting in my body? How’s that going to make me feel?'” Sounds very similar to intuitive eating, or at least a perversion of it warped just enough so at first glance it appears to fit seamlessly with their weight-centered approach.

The problem is that intuitive eating and dieting mix as well as oil and water. In fact, the very first principle of intuitive eating, as stated by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, is “Reject the Diet Mentality.” Sure, some people pursue intuitive eating hoping to lose weight, but intuitive eating is not designed to be a weight-loss tool, and if someone is unable to at least put weight on the back burner, then he or she will never truly learn to eat intuitively. In other words, having one foot in intuitive eating and the other in weight-loss culture will likely get you nowhere.

Really think about the company name: Weight Watchers. Weight. Watchers. People who watch weight. How is someone possibly supposed to jump with both feet into intuitive eating in the context of weigh-ins and an emphasis on mass? It is fine and dandy for Foster to say, “[Weight] is an important metric, but not the only metric,” but when the scale continues to be the focal point and the most important measure of progress in the eyes of everybody involved, consider the bind clients will find themselves in if and when becoming more proficient with intuitive eating is at odds with the scale. With the attention still on weight, how long will it be before the newly developed intuitive-eating skills are abandoned in favor of old-fashioned restriction?

Weight Watchers launched a pilot study of their revamped program in New Jersey, and 38 of the 40 participants lost weight, including three women whose testimonies of having lost between 18 and 50 pounds were featured in the Good Morning America segment. “We still produce weight loss,” Foster said on the show. Pretty much any kind of restriction will lead to short-term weight loss, so it always blows my mind when companies act like their program is unique in this way. Remember, nobody knows how to produce long-term weight loss in more than a tiny fraction of people who attempt to achieve it. The right hand can attempt to distract you with all sorts of glowing testimonials and a small, short-term pilot study, but none of that suggests that this version of their program will work any better than its predecessors, and you know the left hand is still holding the FTC-mandated disclaimer due to the futility of the program.

Weight Watchers certainly has success stories, and they make sure you never forget it. Group meeting leaders are all former clients who have lost weight and kept it off (at least so far) through a combination of behavior change and a boatload of factors out of their control that happened to work in their favor. Their mere presence is a subtle sales pitch that conveys enticing testimonies of hope and success, making you believe that the next winner could be you if only you continue to partake. Weight Watchers emphasizes seduction over expertise and downplays that leaders do not necessarily have backgrounds in nutrition, exercise science, or anything remotely connected to health, but rather disciplines such as drama that lend themselves to charismatic performance. Why hire someone with solid and extensive qualifications in economics and finances to manage your money when you can instead attempt to follow in the footsteps of some dude who struck it rich on a convenience store scratch ticket?

The other issue with their use of leaders and celebrity spokespeople to pitch their product is that neither you nor I know for sure what they do or do not do behind closed doors in order to achieve and maintain weight loss. Both parties have incentive to keep their weight in check regardless of the costs. Leaders can lose their jobs if they regain weight, and my understanding is that celebrity endorsement contracts are contingent on continued weight maintenance. Behaviors kept private can range from the privileged (personal chefs, personal trainers, etc.), to the deceitful (employing other weight-loss techniques beyond the Weight Watchers program being credited), to the disordered (ever-increasing restriction and/or exercise, preoccupation with food and physical activity, social withdrawal), to the outright dangerous (very-low-calorie diets, unregulated supplements, eating disorders). Clinically, we have seen many patients whose eating disorders were triggered by competition in a weight-based sport such as crew or wrestling, participation in an appearance-based activity such as gymnastics or figure skating, or employment in a size-based field such as modeling or personal training. While I do not believe we have ever had a Weight Watchers leader or celebrity spokesperson as a patient, it stands to reason that they are similarly vulnerable to the emphasis placed on their weight and the pressure to maintain it.

For 52 years, Weight Watchers has deceived you by knowingly overstating the efficacy of their programs and blaming you for their own failures, all at the expense of your time, money, and health. Do you really want to bet your resources and well-being that the outcome will be any different this time around? You deserve more than smoke and mirrors, don’t you?


She Said

While this might be news to some of you, it’s been nearly two months since Oprah Winfrey announced that she has not only become a member of Weight Watchers (WW), but she has also bought 10% of the company and become a board member and adviser. According to O, she decided to join and later invest in Weight Watchers as she has “always struggled with weight” and was impressed by the company’s “holistic approach” to health and weight loss. On Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show (which aired on October 23rd), Oprah reported that she had already lost 15 pounds since August 12th and was truly enjoying the program.

Oy. Where do I start with how sad this whole situation is? I have always been a fan of Oprah, as I have seen her as a strong advocate for women, someone who has been through a lot in her life and who wants to help young girls and women become their true and best selves. While the media often focused (and still focuses) on her weight gains and losses, I was always impressed by her ability to bring people together, inspire, and educate. Oprah is so much more than her weight!

I remember in 2010, I was so excited to see that Oprah was having Geneen Roth on as a guest of her show to discuss Roth’s best-selling book “Women Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything.” Roth’s philosophy is that the way one eats is directly related to one’s core beliefs about being alive. She is an anti-diet proponent who posits that by exploring one’s spirit and soul, one can break free from emotional eating, finding balance with one’s relationship with food and one’s body. On the show, Oprah was giving such high praise to Roth and her book, saying how she was inspired to “never diet again” and that this book was a life-changing read for her.

So that brings me to the present day. Really, Oprah? What happened? Because last time I checked, WW is a diet, a set of externally based rules that tells its members what and how much to eat in order to lose weight to become socially acceptable – pretty much the opposite of Roth’s message. As we have written about too many times to count, 95% of people who alter their diet in order to lose weight will regain the weight and usually end up heavier. Weight Watchers is no different – it is a diet! Whenever anyone tries to tell me that it is a “lifestyle,” not a diet, I really have to contain my eye-rolling reflexes. Want to figure out if you are on a diet? Here’s how: Are you purposefully manipulating your food intake based on a set of external (i.e., not internally based) eating rules? Is your main goal of said food manipulation to watch the number on the scale go down? Well, I hate to break it to you, but you are on a diet, my friend. And chances are, even if you do end up losing weight, you will regain that weight and then some.

In a purely monetary sense, Oprah’s investment in Weight Watchers is brilliant – contrary to its popular “It Works!” slogan, It Doesn’t! The company has admitted that the success rate of its members is embarrassingly low, and much of their research is based on data that was collected over the span of a year. Um, nice try! We all know that weight regain often occurs between 1 and 5 years post-diet. But of course Weight Watchers doesn’t have data that goes that far. What a surprise. The company’s business plan is so clever because it knows that the diet doesn’t work. 95% of their members will regain the weight (blaming themselves instead of the diet, of course) and will rejoin, creating an unending cycle of profit for Weight Watchers.

Listen, I don’t really blame Oprah for making this truly unfortunate decision – she is human, and she is not immune from the body-shaming, weight-loss messages women receive on a daily basis. But I am disappointed that she is choosing to participate in and endorse a company whose sole purpose is to tell women that they are not enough, that their worth should be measured by a piece of metal, and that weight loss is the only way to find one’s true and best self. Oprah, I really expected more from you.

2 thoughts on “He Said, She Said: Weight Watchers – Helping You Lose Since 1963

  1. I think WW is a cult. You have to believe. You have to follow their program. You have to regularly go to meetings. You have to pay for the meetings. You have to pay for materials. IF (big IF) you ever hit your goal weight, you get a “free membership for life” — unless you go back above your goal weight. Then it’s back to pay, pay, pay.

    I had a pile of friends who dutifully paid and paid to follow WW’s point system. Spending any time with a dieter is always full of negative food talk (“I can’t eat this.” “If I eat that, I can’t have this” etc.), but with the points system it added the dimension of “Wait, I have to look up how may points this is before I can have it.”

    I will say one thing for Weight Watchers. In the 60s and 70s, especially, when they weighed you they would LOUDLY ANNOUNCE to the room how much you’d lost — or gained, or neither, usually with a snarky comment about how someone wasn’t properly following the program.

    Somewhere n the 90s (I think) they were among the first, if not the first, public face of dieting to realize that shame does not work, and they stopped the public bullying.

    • All good points. Weight Watchers definitely deserves credit for making the weigh-ins more private. From what members have told me though, they still experience quite a bit of shame, embarrassment, humiliation, etc. at the weigh-ins even in the more modern structure of privacy.

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