Research & Education Weight Management

Can Weight Watchers(WW) really help you lose weight and stay healthy

Unlike many other restrictive fad diets, WW focuses on whole foods, like Asian-style beef and broccoli (left), and even dessert, like chocolate chip cake mix cookie bars (right)

Formerly known as Weight Watchers, WW has had an impressive track record of success. Founded more than 50 years ago by Jean Nidetch, the weight loss company began in Nidetch’s home with a few friends looking for diet support. Today, WW remains one of the most popular diets in the world, with 4.5 million subscribers as of 2018, and an international roster of doctors, researchers, and other experts on its scientific advisory board.

Also as of 2018, Weight Watchers rebranded to become WW. The new company tagline, “Wellness That Works,” highlights WW’s shift from purely weight loss to overall health and wellness.

The Decision to Rebrand and Controversy Around WW’s Weight Loss App for Kids

Famous for its weight management program, WW announced its expansion to become a global wellness company in September 2018. In addition to weight loss, WW now offers programs that encourage physical activity and help develop a positive mindset. As part of the company’s renewed commitment to wellness, WW products sold to consumers no longer contained any artificial sweeteners, flavors, or preservatives as of January 2019.

The WW app also has new features that include the WellnessWins reward program, a point system for fitness and exercise, and Connect Groups where people can meet other members based on age, interests, and what stage of their wellness journey they’re on.

Controversy sparked in August 2019 with the launch of Kurbo by WW, a weight loss program for children and teens ages 8 to 17. Kurbo is marketed as a family-based behavior-change program, and uses the traffic-light system to help kids make better choices when it comes to food. Parents and eating-disorder experts criticized the program, arguing it may cause or exacerbate unhealthy eating habits in young people.

“I don’t like to overly focus on a child’s weight and rarely recommend kids lose weight, but rather identify areas in their life where they may have an opportunity to improve health behaviors,” says Natalie Muth, MD, pediatrician and author of Family Fit Plan.

“I don’t think the approach was developed to be a diet, but rather an approach to help families make lifestyle changes,” she says.

Can WW Help You Lose Weight, and if So, How?

WW is not a fad approach, but rather a slow and steady plan. Although the WW system has evolved over the years, it has always been about creating a balanced diet, eating in moderation, and eating the foods you want. Each food has an assigned number of points, depending on its calorie count and how much saturated fat, sugar, and protein it contains.

“It promotes the inclusion of a wide variety of foods; therefore it supports balance — all foods are considered ‘legal,’ to avoid feeling deprived,” says Susan Kraus, RD, of the Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.

In November 2019, WW announced the launch of a new program that includes a personal assessment to help customize the right plan for you. Based on your eating habits, weight loss goals, and exercise levels, the program will match you with a color: blue, green, or purple. The three plans still follow a points system to track food intake, but SmartPoints are personalized to you. Here’s a closer look at each plan: (3)

  • The Green Plan This offers more points than the other plans, and has more than 100 ZeroPoint foods to choose from.
  • The Blue Plan This plan replaced the WW Freestyle program that launched in 2017. It falls in the middle in terms of SmartPoints, and offers more than 200 ZeroPoint foods.
  • The Purple Plan This approach limits the number of SmartPoints, but offers access to more than 300 ZeroPoint foods, including fruits, vegetables, eggs, and seafood.

On any WW plan, there are no “must-eat” foods — the participant is in the driver’s seat when it comes to making menu decisions. (7) Kraus adds that the combination of tracking points, making healthy food choices, and increasing activity levels will help the participant lose weight.

“WW is an excellent program because it focuses on portion sizes, is well balanced, and puts the responsibility on the participant to make the right choices, which is really where it belongs because you are responsible for your success,” says Barbara Schmidt, RD, lifestyle specialist at Norwalk Hospital and a nutritionist in private practice in New Canaan, Connecticut. “You need to be able to live and eat different foods. You can have that bagel or the dessert, just not every day.”

What Research Says About the WW Diet

Many studies support the effectiveness of the program. A study published in April 2015 in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine found study participants using WW consistently lost more weight than those not on the diet. While almost 3 percent showed greater weight loss after a year, it was unclear whether WW was more successful than behavioral counseling.

Research has also shown the WW diet to be effective for people with type 2 diabetes. One study published in October 2017 in the journal BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care found almost one-half of participants referred to WW had a reduced risk of developing diabetes, or had blood sugar levels return to normal.

An earlier study published in the American Journal of Medicine showed those on WW were 8.8 times more likely to drop 10 percent of their body weight after six months compared with those who took a self-help approach using weight loss printouts and websites. ) What’s more, researchers found participants lost more weight the more they engaged with WW tools — specifically meetings, the WW website, and the program’s mobile app.

Why WW Workshops Can Make a Difference

WW pioneered the support-group-diet concept, and research shows having that connection can help with weight loss. A meta-analysis published August 2016 in the journal Patient Preference and Adherence found people were more successful in sticking to their weight loss program if they had a social support system in place, whether in the form of group sessions, peer coaches, or a “buddy” program.

One study cited in the meta-analysis found people with a support system in place were 37 percent more likely to maintain their weight loss compared with those who tried to do it alone. (11) WW Workshops (formerly known as meetings) are available seven days a week at thousands of locations across the United States, where people can go to connect with coaches, guides, and other members. WW Workshops are roughly 30 minutes long, and cover a range of topics related to health, wellness, and weight loss. Attending meetings also earns members WellnessWins, which can be put towards rewards like beauty products, fitness gear, and mindfulness tools.

How Much Does WW Cost to Follow?

Studies have shown WW is one of the lowest-cost commercial diet programs, but costs depend on where you live, which type of plan you pick, and if your employer or health insurance offers any discounts on the program.

For example, here’s a snapshot of the program pricing in New York City:

  • Personal Coaching Plus Digital ($12.95 per week) features a personal coach, unlimited one-on-one phone sessions, and everything offered in the Digital Plan (see below).
  • The Workshop Plan ($6.95 per week) includes full access to the website and app, weekly group workshops, and guidance from wellness coaches.
  • The Digital Plan ($2.95 per week) offers access to the WW website, app, and 24/7 online chat support from a WW coach.

How Easy and Convenient Is WW?

In 2019, U.S. News & World Report rated WW the “best weight loss diet.” It also tied for second place with the flexitarian diet (a part-time vegetarian diet) as the “easiest diet to follow,” behind the Mediterranean diet, which ranked No. 1.

The reason? It’s convenient and easy to stick to on a day-to-day basis because the points system gives participants the flexibility to choose what to eat and when.

The WW app or website can quickly tell participants how many points are in a food (the database contains information about 300,000 foods), or participants can create a meal from one of the website’s 4,000-plus recipes. The three plans also allow participants to pick the format that best fits their lifestyle, whether that means losing weight, getting physically fit, or developing a healthier mindset.

A 1-Day WW Diet Sample Menu to Consider

Based on a SmartPoints Budget of 23, a sample day might consist of:

Breakfast Egg over red potato, kale, and bacon hash with coffee and milk

Lunch Turkey burger with squash fries

Snack Cheese or nuts, and fruit

Dinner Spice-rubbed flank steak with fajita vegetables and a light beer

Dessert Chocolate pizzella fruit tart

Potential Health Benefits of the WW Diet

There are many potential benefits of the WW diet, which is about making positive lifestyle changes, as opposed to restricting certain foods and food intake. Liz Weinandy, RD, MPH, who is based at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, regularly refers people to WW and says the program teaches healthy eating habits.

“It really encourages the right foods — fruits and vegetables, lean protein — and they really work on trying to get people to eat less sugar and less unhealthy fats,” she says.

Another benefit to WW, and one thing that sets it apart from fad diets, is that no foods are off limits.

“I love that because there’s so much psychology behind telling someone, ‘Oh, no, you can’t have ice cream for six months after tonight,’ and then they’re driving to the grocery store and picking up a party pail,” Weinandy says.

The allure of fad diets is that they can help you shed pounds fast, but rapid weight loss like this often comes at a price. Not only do many fad diets eliminate or limit nutrients essential to overall health — for example, the keto diet severely limits carbohydrates, an important macronutrient — but once that short-term diet stops, people tend to regain weight quickly, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Fad diets can also be dangerous for anyone who has had or may be prone to eating disorders. The general rule of thumb? Steer clear of diets that sound too good to be true or promise rapid weight loss.

Potential Downsides to the WW Diet

One major disadvantage of the program is that WW coaches are not medical professionals trained in diet and nutrition. Instead, they’re people who have seen success losing weight with this approach.

“I don’t know that everyone who’s leading the meetings will give the best advice,” Weinandy says.

Depending on your diet personality, there could be additional drawbacks. While the flexibility of the program is welcome to some, for others it may cause too much temptation, says Kraus.

“Some people find that having too much flexibility might cause too much temptation. If they indulge in something not considered ‘on plan’ in their mind, this might cause them to overeat that particular food,” says Kraus, adding that this type of dieter would be better off following a very defined diet to stay on track.

She also worries about individuals abusing the points system; even if people are losing weight, it doesn’t always mean they’re developing healthier habits. Because people following WW have no restrictions on what they can eat, it could give the impression it’s okay to eat a sugary dessert every night, for example.

“Some people might use the points for less healthful foods — for example, desserts in place of a lunch,” explains Kraus. “So they might still succeed in losing the weight, but at the expense of choosing less nutritionally balanced foods.”

The Possible Short- and Long-Term Effects to Expect on WW

Unlike fad diets, including the ketogenic diet, which help people drop weight fast but are not sustainable long term, WW helps people lose weight and maintain it.

A study published in May 2017 in the journal The Lancet found obese adults who followed WW for one year lost more weight than those who stuck with the program for 12 weeks, or those who used self-help materials. In the study, the 52-week group lost just under 15 pounds on average over the course of the year, which shows the plan won’t result in drastic weight loss overnight.

The researchers also checked in with study participants one year later, and found that while all groups had regained some weight, the 52-week WW group was able to maintain their weight and fat loss the best. (16)

“WW might be slower because it’s based on realistic living and portion control,” Schmidt says. “It may not give an obese person initial gratification because it’s not as restrictive, but chances are you can stay on it and live with it much longer [than other diet plans].”

There are so many diet plans out there, it can be difficult to know which will be successful and, more importantly, sustainable for you. Low-carb diets have proven to be effective for short-term weight loss, but are very difficult to maintain long-term. While there’s no one-size-fits-all diet out there, the ones that are most successful in the long run focus on overall lifestyle changes — like eating a healthful diet, engaging in physical activity, and getting enough sleep — implemented slowly and steadily over time, according to a study published in September 2018 in the journal Healthcare.

The Takeaway: Will the WW Diet Help You Lose Weight?

WW has a track record of successfully helping people lose weight, mainly because it’s easy to follow, flexible, doesn’t make any foods off limits, and offers a support system to keep participants on course. Still, you shouldn’t expect to see dramatic changes on the scale immediately. But if you follow the system (and don’t abuse it by eating dessert instead of a well-balanced meal), you likely will see pounds come off and your health improve as well.

The biggest takeaway is that the program teaches healthy eating that you can realistically stick with long term.

“I tell every single person looking to lose weight that whatever you do to lose weight, make sure it’s reasonable so it’s sustainable,” Weinandy says.

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