A Review of Weight Watchers for Weight Loss 

Dr. Christopher McGowan
April 26, 2023

WW Origin | How Does WW Work? | WW Meal Plan | WW Weight Loss | Negatives of WW | What Do The Experts Say | WW Bottom Line | True You Weight Loss

The decision to start a weight loss journey doesn’t usually come easily, and most people either have to think about it for a while or wait for the “right” moment to present itself. This decision-making process also usually involves a lot of research and reflection. Which diet is right for me? How much weight do I need to lose? Will I be able to stick with it? And it’s this often convoluted and daunting process that leads to fad diets that promise amazing results with limited effort. 

Choosing a weight loss program among numerous options is understandably difficult, and for that reason many people look to systems that seem tried-and-true. A classic example of this kind of diet that has been around for decades is Weight Watchers. With over four million members, it is one of the most popular diets in the world. In fact, U.S. News & World Report has named it the “Best Diet for Weight Loss” for nine years in a row. But with all the hype, does it actually work for weight loss?   

Origin of Weight Watchers 

The Weight Watchers diet program was originally conceived by a housewife from New York named Jean Nidetch. By 1961, Nidetch was in her late 30s and had been overweight for most of her adult life. After trying a 10-week weight management program sponsored by a New York obesity clinic, she was able to lose weight but found that the program was lacking in providing the kind of intangible emotional support she needed to sustain her progress. To make up for this, she decided to start her own support group with other women living in her apartment. 

What began as a small support group eventually grew into a loose network of groups in other neighborhoods nearby that included both women and men. One couple, Al and Felice Lippert, convinced Nidetch to turn the effort into a business so it could help even more people. In 1963, Nidetch and the Lipperts founded Weight Watchers Inc. For $2 a session, people could come to a weekly support group meeting and get encouragement, inspiration, and ideas for how to stick with the plan.  

Over the following decades, the company continued to grow and evolve as ownership changed hands several times. Along the way, the original mission of providing social support expanded to include meal planning, a points system for facilitating healthy eating habits, and even branded food items that fit with the diet. In 2018 the company was renamed WW International, Inc and launched an updated website (weightwatchers.com). While the company still offers a weight loss system, it also focuses on general health and wellness more broadly.    

How Does Weight Watchers Work? 

As with most other diets, the main purpose of the Weight Watchers program as it stands today is to promote a calorie deficit through changing one’s eating habits. Bolstered by nutrition counseling and group support, participants can track what and how much they’re eating via meal replacements and the points system. The idea is that a person trying to lose weight will get a diet framework, a way to track progress over time, and a social support system that has been shown to increase adherence to the plan.

Even though a calorie deficit is the goal, the program doesn’t actually focus on counting calories. Rather, it uses a system of daily points that represent a more holistic representation of a food’s nutritional value. The points value is determined by calories as well as protein, fats, carbs, fiber, sugar, etc. Generally speaking, foods high in protein, fiber, and unsaturated fats have fewer points, and foods high in added sugars and saturated fats have more points. For example, ice cream has more points than a piece of fruit because it contains a lot of sugar and saturated fat while the fruit is high in fiber. 

Every individual is assigned a personal points budget when they first sign up, and this budget is determined by factors like age, sex, and physical activity level. No food is off limits with the Weight Watchers program, but the points system encourages participants to eat meals that are nutrient dense like fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy. The program also identifies a number of “ZeroPoint” foods that can be eaten without restriction. Each day, the goal is to eat only as much food as your personalized points budget allows. 

All of the points tracking can be done through the mobile WW app, which includes features like a food barcode reader, recipes, weight tracker, workout tracker, and access to community support. The core membership costs $23 a month and is mostly a self-guided experience built around the app. The premium membership costs $45 a month and includes both in-person and virtual workshops as well as access to a personal coach. The company also offers a special plan that is tailored to people who have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.    

Typical Weight Watchers Meal Plan 

weight watchers meal plan

The points budget that gets determined at the beginning is the central figure that dictates how much you can eat each day. The average budget is 23 points, though it can be higher or lower for different people. On the app it can also be divided into a daily or weekly format depending on your preference. Once you sign up, you have access to thousands of recipes made up of a variety of nutritious foods. The app also provides point estimates for foods and recipes that aren’t part of the Weight Watchers system. Below is an example of a daily meal plan for a person who has 20 points in their budget: 

  • Breakfast: 1 cup of yogurt topped with half a cup of pineapple and half a cup of blueberries (3 points)
  • Lunch: cheese and vegetable tortilla wrap with a whole wheat tortilla, black beans, low-fat cheese, salsa, and a side of baked tortilla chips (6 points) 
  • Dinner: 2 oz grilled pork tenderloin with teriyaki sauce with a baked sweet potato and broccoli florets (8 points)
  • Snack: 1 cup of fat-free, sugar-free chocolate pudding (3 points) 

In the example above, the person would use up all 20 points of their daily allotment, but if they skipped the cup of pudding as a snack, the 3 points could be rolled over to the next day. Or, if they added a food, they might eat a little less the next day. Ultimately, the goal of the points system is to track what you’re eating and promote choices that support your weight loss goals and help you achieve your target body weight. 

Does Weight Watchers Work for Weight Loss?

In many ways, the Weight Watchers system is like most other diet plans: it relies on portion control and food choice to restrict calories and cause a calorie deficit. Anyone strictly following the plan should theoretically be able to lose weight over time. Unlike some other kinds of diets (particularly fad diets), however, the program doesn’t promise quick results or an easy system. Indeed, the fact that a social support system has always been at the core of Weight Watchers shows that it is intended to lead to a long-term behavior change.  

The fact that Weight Watchers has been around and part of popular culture for so long has also made a relatively frequent subject of scientific research. Over the years, a number of studies have looked into whether the program is actually effective as a method of weight loss. Below are some recent examples of studies that compared Weight Watchers to other diets and weight loss interventions:   

  • Compared to medical counseling: A 2011 study from the U.K. and Australia looked at 772 adults who were trying to lose weight. One group followed the Weight Watchers program, and the other group received weight loss counseling from a physician. After 12 months, participants in the Weight Watchers group had lost twice as much weight as the group that relied on medical counseling based on generally accepted weight loss guidelines. The Weight Watchers group also saw improvements in blood sugar and cholesterol levels.     
  • Compared to similar programs: A 2015 systematic review of randomized controlled trials was done in order to understand the effectiveness of commercial weight loss programs like Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, and a few others. The researchers found that participants on Weight Watchers lost 2.6% more weight than those in the control group that only focused on nutritional education and counseling. However, participants who followed both the Jenny Craig and Nutrisystem diets were able to lose 4.9% and 3% more than the control group, respectively.   
  • Compared to doing it on your own: In 2013, a study published in The American Journal of Medicine looked at about 300 participants in order to evaluate the efficacy of Weight Watchers as a “community-based behavioral counseling program.” In this randomized controlled trial, half the group followed Weight Watchers, and half the group was given a series of self-help materials with dieting guidelines. After six months, the Weight Watchers group had significantly decreased their body mass index (BMI) compared to the self-help group. The researchers further determined that participants who used Weight Watchers were eight times more likely to see a 5-10% reduction in weight. 

Some additional studies have looked at other aspects of Weight Watchers that aren’t limited solely to how much weight can be lost. For instance, a 2014 study compared Weight Watchers to several other diets in terms of drop out rates and found that the drop-out rate for Weight Watchers was substantially lower than other diets. There have also been other studies that have identified Weight Watchers as the most cost-effective option among popular commercial diet programs. 

What Are the Negatives of Weight Watchers?

WW considerations

Weight Watchers isn’t for everyone of course, and it is specifically not recommended for anyone under 18 or for those with eating disorders. Beyond those concerns, though, there are additional considerations for anyone who hopes to lose weight with the program. Some of these considerations are general and some are Weight Watchers specific: 

  • Tracking can become tedious: A crucial element of the current iteration of Weight Watchers is tracking everything you eat on the WW app. While the app is known for being well-designed and easy to use, it can easily become tedious to track every single bit of food each and every day. This can be a turn-off at the outset for some, and it can also lead to giving up prematurely even for those who started with a lot of zeal. 
  • Points can be confusing: The points system does provide a relatively easy way to track what you’re eating, but it can also be confusing or misleading. For instance, ZeroPoints foods don’t count against your points budget, but that doesn’t mean those foods don’t have calories; it’s entirely possible that someone could be technically within their budget and yet not be in a calorie deficit (and therefore not lose weight).  
  • Balance not guaranteed: The Weight Watchers program generally encourages you to eat healthy, nutrient-dense foods, but the process of fitting various foods into your daily or weekly budget doesn’t guarantee a balanced diet. It’s entirely possible to eat foods that are relatively high in fat and sugar and low in other nutrients while still staying under the points allotment.  
  • Support costs more: When Jean Nidetch started Weight Watchers in the 60s, the most noteworthy feature was the in-person support group meetings. This kind of community support was the original defining feature of the system, but now you can only access this feature if you pay for the more expensive “premium” type of membership. Moreover, even the cost of the cheaper membership plan may still be out of reach for many people.   

What Do the Experts Say? 

Victoria Duncan, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian at True You Weight Loss, provides answers to some commonly asked questions about Weight Watchers and how it stacks up compared to other weight loss methods: 

What are the pros of Weight Watchers?

  • Weight Watchers offers support group style meetings that occur in person at many different times, and they occur every day of the week. 
  • The program also offers an online only option for those who don’t want to attend weekly meetings or weigh-ins. It can also help people become more aware of the other nutrients on a nutrition facts label, not just calories, because they must be aware of what foods they are consuming. 
  • Because it is such a well-known brand, you can almost always find point values for your favorite foods and even favorite meals at restaurants. 

What are the cons of Weight Watchers?

  • The program has rebranded many times over the last few years, and it can be confusing to adapt to a new style of “tracking” if you aren’t someone who is tech savvy. 
  • It can also be costly depending on the plan you choose. 
  • Tracking can also be tedious. If you aren’t someone who likes to track your food and exercise, this may not be the right option for you. 
  • Many weekly meetings are run by the average person, not by health care professionals or experts. 

What have you found people are generally unaware of when considering Weight Watchers?

  • People don’t often realize that there can be a significant amount of support with Weight Watchers, but that it isn’t always led by a healthcare professional. Oftentimes, the people leading the sessions are other Weight Watchers participants who have been successful at losing weight (and keeping it off for some period of time) with the program. 
  • Weight Watchers participants who choose to participate in Weight Watchers freestyle, may not recognize the caloric implications of zero point foods. For example, eggs on some plans are zero points, but having 18 eggs per day doesn’t mean you’re having zero calories or that this is a mindful choice. This can be confusing for people because they are labeled as zero points, which can lead to the negative implication that they are also zero calories. A healthy diet is one that is balanced and contains foods from all the food groups with a variety of different nutrients. 

Do you have firsthand experience with Weight Watchers, whether it's something that you've personally tried, or have seen others be successful or unsuccessful with?

  • I have used Weight Watchers many times in the past and at the time thought I was successful at it. Unfortunately, as soon as I stopped using the program, I regained the weight that I had lost. I also developed a thyroid disorder (completely unrelated to using Weight Watchers) that contributed to weight gain. It made it difficult to lose weight with diet and exercise alone. 
  • I found that when I used Weight Watchers or participated in it, I would obsess over every point and tracking everything I ate. It started to fuel some unhealthy eating behaviors for me, like saving all my points for special meals. I couldn’t enjoy the food I was eating because I was always thinking about how many points I was consuming. I wouldn’t say that this is everyone’s experience, but it was what I experienced. 
  • I would also point out that my experience wasn’t entirely negative. Weight Watchers has a very close-knit community and having that support on a weight loss journey is always going to be beneficial.  

How much weight do people typically lose with Weight Watchers?

  • For people who are considering Weight Watchers, it is important to remember that everybody’s body is different, and their starting points are also going to differ. Those who participate in Weight Watchers can see a weight loss of about 1-2 pounds per week. 

For someone that might be considering Weight Watchers, what alternative options should they consider and why?

  • If you are considering Weight Watchers to lose weight, I would first suggest doing all your research. Don’t jump headfirst into something that requires a monthly payment plan if you don’t think you’ll use it. 
  • If you aren’t someone who wants to track what you’re eating every day or go to weekly meetings, try looking for a registered dietitian in your area who might be able to tailor a weight loss plan specifically to your needs. Eatright.org is a great resource when it comes to looking for registered dietitians in your area!   

The Bottom Line

One of the benefits of a weight loss program being around for 60+ years is that it becomes a well-known and well-studied system. Weight Watchers claims that it has helped millions of people lose weight during that time, though it’s unclear how accurate that claim is. What is clear, though, is that the program does have a series of features that are in line with broadly accepted weight loss techniques and principles. For that reason it’s worth considering as a weight loss method for some people.  

Recent research shows that Weight Watchers can lead to weight loss, but the results will vary wildly from person to person. Overall, the focus on portion control and food choices that emphasize protein, fiber, and healthy fats is an undeniably good starting point. Also, the community support aspect that started it all is unambiguously important in any weight loss effort. The bottom line, though, is that Weight Watchers probably isn’t substantially more effective at helping you lose weight than other methods for the vast majority of people.  

How to Lose Weight with True You

If you’re trying to lose weight, Weight Watchers is one of many options available, and there is evidence that it can be effective for some people. The unfortunate truth is, though, that most traditional methods of weight loss simply don’t work over the long term. There are a variety of biochemical and emotional factors that play a role in body composition, and they can make it really difficult to make lifestyle changes, even with a group of people cheering you on.  

At True You Weight Loss, we meet people regularly who have tried all the popular diets yet can’t find success. That’s why we offer a series of alternative approaches that have a track record of success at helping people lose weight over the long term. Additionally we offer non-surgical procedures like ESG or a gastric balloon. If you’d like to learn more about how to finally find the freedom you’ve been looking for, please contact us today to request a consultation.  

Dr. Christopher McGowan
Dr. Christopher McGowan

Dr. Christopher McGowan, MD, a leader in endobariatrics, specializes in non-surgical obesity treatments and is triple-board-certified in Internal Medicine, Gastroenterology, and Obesity Medicine. Renowned for pioneering endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty (ESG) with over 2,000 procedures, his global influence and research contributions define him as a top expert.

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