Weight Watchers focuses on weight, not health.

In Weight Watchers’ newest point system (“PointsPlus”), fresh fruits and most vegetables have a zero point value (essentially meaning that they are unlimited) – this change was meant to encourage members to eat more whole plant foods and less processed foods, adding phytochemical value to their diet. This is certainly a positive step, and I applaud Weight Watchers for taking it.  They have tweaked their program a bit, to make it healthier.

Measuring tape. Flickr: Pink Sherbet Photography

However, the Weight Watchers program is still far from a health-promoting eating style. Regarding the zero points policy for most produce, all fruits and vegetables are not equal when it comes to health-supporting phytochemicals. For example, anti-cancer, immune-building, and cardio-protective properties plus the high fiber and low sugar content of berries and pomegranate necessitate placing more focus on these fruits compared to higher sugar fruits like bananas and dates. Also, green vegetables have about 10 times the micronutrients compared to a white potato.  However that is not the main problem with the Weight Watchers system.

The PointsPlus system encourages the consumption of foods that produce greater satiety – foods that are higher in fiber and protein content are more favorably scored.  High-fiber foods and high-protein foods are not nutritionally equivalent – compare beans and grilled chicken, for example. Beans are phytochemical-rich, protein-adequate, healthful foods with anti-cancer properties and a low glycemic load; grilled chicken may also induce satiety because it is very high in protein, but it has no phytochemical content plus it contains cancer-promoting heterocyclic amines – it is not a food that supports longevity and long-term health.  Plus, chicken raises IGF-1, in the body, a hormone associated with higher rates of breast cancer.1,2 The problem here is that animal protein is promoted as a favorable substance to consume more of by Weight Watchers, in spite of the plethora of evidence in recent years linking high IGF-1 to premature aging and cancer.3-5

Weight Watchers’ guidelines for healthy eating are simply unhealthy – and not supported by the most updated nutritional science. Weight Watchers recommends a miniscule five total (half-cup) daily servings of fruits and vegetables combined; not nearly enough to achieve disease prevention. They also recommend two servings of cow’s milk daily, a growth-promoting food associated with increased risk of ovarian cancer in women and prostate cancer in men.6-8 They do not discourage the use of artificial sweeteners, which perpetuate the desire for excessively sweet foods. They also encourage two teaspoons of “healthy oil” daily rather than whole foods that contain fats like seeds and nuts; of course is no such thing as “healthy oil” – all oils are 100% fat with little or no micronutrient value – this recommendation simply adds empty calories. 

Weight Watchers promises to provide a method of weight loss that “fits within one’s lifestyle and preferences”, assuring potential members that there is “plenty of room for treats and extras.” To be inclusionary of everyone, they must give watered-down recommendations that are too close to the disease-causing Standard American Diet. Despite the changes to the points system that promote more whole foods, Weight Watchers is still a diet of calorie-counting and controlled portions of mostly addictive processed foods. They do not address re-training the tastebuds to prefer healthier foods – members eat small portions of nutrient-poor junk food daily as ‘treats,’ therefore never losing their addictive cravings. Like most diet plans, Weight Watchers attempts to appeal to a mainstream audience, who eat a diet of primarily processed foods and animal products; so they must allow members to continue the same eating pattern that originally led them down the path to obesity  (and also leads to diabetes, heart disease and cancer). This is evident when you look at Weight Watchers’ line of pre-packaged foods. They sell nutrient-poor, high-sodium, reduced-calorie processed products with lengthy ingredient lists including added sugars, hydrogenated oils, and white flour – just like conventional processed foods.9,10 The ingredient lists are strategically absent from the Weight Watchers website, though calorie and point values are visible.

Weight Watchers sponge cake. Flickr. slgckgcWeight Watchers is not in the business of health; it  is all about weight and recruiting the mainstream with their SAD (Standard American Diet) but dangerous dietary preferences.  Members and even leaders are poorly educated about nutritional science and women are not motivated to eat to win the war on cancer.  Participants are forever maintaining their food addictions, because eating a little healthier and trying to cut back is simply a formula for failure in the vast majority of cases.  Weight Watchers gives lip service to better health and healthier eating, yet continues to sell nutrient-depleted processed junk food. A healthy weight is almost impossible to maintain without serious attention to excellent nutrition, prevention of all deficiencies, sufficient anti-inflammatory super foods and the resulting elimination of additions and cravings.  Weight Watchers is mostly serves those who remain forever on the weight loss merry-go-round, struggling with marginally effective recommendations and outcomes.

Eat To Live is not primarily focused on weight, it is focused on life extension and winning the war on cancer.

You eat larger amounts of vegetables, beans and fruits, with attention to the most powerful anti-cancer foods on the planet. Food is rated according to micronutrients content per calorie, not just calories. Eating delicious, health-promoting foods allows you to lose the cravings and temptations to eat greasy, sugary, disease-causing foods.   More importantly, once you learn how to Eat to Live, the weight comes off dramatically and permanently and you never have to diet again.  You become the nutritional expert who can now navigate through life with knowledge that you can protect yourself from serious tragic outcomes such as dementia, heart attacks, strokes and cancer.  It is for people who want great health and freedom from the medical dependency and medical tragedies that eventually afflict almost all Americans. 

Image credits: Flickr: Pink Sherbet Photography, slgckgc

References:

1. Shi R, Yu H, McLarty J, et al. IGF-I and breast cancer: a meta-analysis. Int J Cancer 2004;111:418-423.

2. Rinaldi S, Peeters PH, Berrino F, et al. IGF-I, IGFBP-3 and breast cancer risk in women: The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC). Endocr Relat Cancer 2006;13:593-605.

3. Laron Z. The GH-IGF1 axis and longevity. The paradigm of IGF1 deficiency. Hormones (Athens) 2008;7:24-27.

4.  McCarty MF. A low-fat, whole-food vegan diet, as well as other strategies that down-regulate IGF-I activity, may slow the human aging process. Med Hypotheses 2003;60:784-792.

5. Kaaks R. Nutrition, insulin, IGF-1 metabolism and cancer risk: a summary of epidemiological evidence. Novartis Found Symp 2004;262:247-260; discussion 260-268.

6. Genkinger JM, Hunter DJ, Spiegelman D, et al. Dairy products and ovarian cancer: a pooled analysis of 12 cohort studies. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 2006;15:364-372.

7. Larsson SC, Orsini N, Wolk A. Milk, milk products and lactose intake and ovarian cancer risk: a meta-analysis of epidemiological studies. Int J Cancer 2006;118:431-441.

8. Qin LQ, Xu JY, Wang PY, et al. Milk consumption is a risk factor for prostate cancer in Western countries: evidence from cohort studies. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr 2007;16:467-476.

9. Barclay E: Weight Watchers Faults Processed Foods While Profiting From Them. . 2010. SHOTS: NPR’s Health Blog. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2010/12/03/131782587/Weight_Watchers-faults-processed-foods-while-profiting-from-them

10. Weight Watchers Smart Ones Entrees – Not that Smart. . Fooducate Blog. http://blog.fooducate.com/2011/05/20/weight-watchers-smart-ones-meals-not-that-smart/ 

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Comments (14) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Janice - September 21, 2012 2:02 PM

Thank you Dr. Fuhrman for your article. Once again you have very clearly outlined why Eat to Live is so successful and why the typical diet of most people is so harmful.
I read Eat to Live the first week of April this year and adpoted your recommendations. I am now 55 pounds slimer and I am so happy.
I love the Eat to Live eating plan and wish that more people would realize how logical it is.
Thank you

Christine Kelly - September 21, 2012 2:19 PM

Well said!

Mike Freifeld - September 21, 2012 2:34 PM

Thank you Dr. Fuhrman for your thoughtful analysis of this diet style.

A friend of mine just told me he gained back all of the weight he lost doing Weight Watchers this summer. I can't tell you how many times I've heard this from others as well.

Programs like Weight Watchers are all about profiting at the expense of people's lives because they perpetuate myths of nutritional mediocrity.

Carla - September 21, 2012 2:53 PM

I followed WW for a long time. I was so sick the whole time. The food is not what your body needs or the quanity you need. Eating a Vegan diet I have lost the weight and gained excellent health. I'm 50 going on 20!

Carol Whitaker - September 21, 2012 3:08 PM

Totally agree. I've been on a number of such programs and was never able to succeed long term. Then I became a nutritarian and.... you know how the story ends!

Faye - September 21, 2012 4:23 PM

As a member of Weight Watchers who is successfully keeping the weight off, I think you are "missing the boat" on this one. Most of the people who join WW have been living on such horrible diets that almost anything is an improvement. Many of these people did not even consume vegetables and fruits and lived on fast food and junk food. The meetings are not all about selling WW products, which I personally do not eat, but in introducing a healthier way of eating. Members are encouraged to eat high fiber healthier foods. They are seeing benefits to health, but most people will not go for the radical dietary change you are suggesting.

Margie Sifuentes - September 21, 2012 4:33 PM

iThank you for this straightforward presentation and analysis of the Weight watcher Program. It brings out for me how desparately we try to retain our cravings for sweetness and SAD approach to what satisfies us.

Charlotte - September 21, 2012 5:10 PM

Way to go Dr. Fuhrman! You tell them! I so much appreciate your willingness to "tell it like it is" and not sugar-coat the information you give us.

Laura - September 22, 2012 3:07 AM

I have lost 51 pounds in 15 weeks on ETL. On weight watchers I lost only 9 pounds in 5 months. On ETL I have almost completely got rid of my psoriasis and I am off my medication called Metformin for PCOS. I have to blunt and say that there is nothing healthy about weight watchers and it encourages not eliminates food addictions. I have never experienced the success I am having now with any other lifestyle of eating I feel so amazing and it is contagious. I get so much joy inspiring and motivating other people to ETL. With ETL I have a new found love for life and people and I attract people where as before I detracted them. I will be forever grateful to Dr Fuhrman for what I would consider saving my life as I was at rock bottom and didn't want to live anymore. My husband is almost 100% on ETL and he is a migraine suffering for the first time in years he has gone without a migraine for over 1.5 weeks. If you are reading this and you are scared or desperate for change please do this for yourself I promise you that you will never look back. Lots of smiles Laura from Australia (The Aussie at the Getaway)

Emily Boller - September 22, 2012 10:50 AM

I joined Weight Watchers several times in my earlier attempts at losing weight. The focus of the meetings that I attended were always about cheering the members to their goal weights; not about health. Never about eradicating diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases; never about overcoming food cravings for addictive fake foods.

I used artificial sweetners like crazy and it was through WW that I became addicted to diet sodas, sugar free puddings, sugar free ice cream "treats", and sugar free gum. I would many times drink an entire 2 liter bottle of diet soda, make & eat a couple boxes of sugar free puddings, eat several, sugar free ice cream treats, and go through a whole pack of sugar free gum . . . per day!

Needless to say, it may seem healthier than eating a Blizzard, but in all reality, substituting artificially sweetened fake foods did not improve my health or overcome my addictive cravings for sweets. In fact, it fueled my addictions for junk food all the more, because it was "legal." (A Weight Watchers term for foods that I was allowed to eat.) Legalizing fake food was the gasoline that lighted the blazing fire!

I became severely malnourished with fake foods and didn't even realize why I was so hungry and tired.

Plus to live in the continual freedom from counting points, etc. is amazing! Eating for health is something I can do, and want to do for the rest of my life.

By the way, diet, sugar free, fake foods taste like medicine to me now. This summer I had some sugar free gum and had to spit it out. It tasted like chemicals. :)

abb - September 22, 2012 4:38 PM

Just last week, I interviewed a woman who lost 40 pounds on Weight Watchers and has kept it off for nearly 10 years, building on what she learned there to consistently seek and improve the eating and exercise habits of her family. I applaud her efforts. At the same time, my gratitude for Dr. F's unceasing efforts to clarify the differences between this, that, and another diet and the ETL diet-style aimed at superior health--with weight loss as its inevitable side-effect--remains undiminished. Focusing on micro-nutrient- and phytochemical-rich food to fight cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, dementia, etc. makes sense to me in a way no other diet does.

Claudia - September 23, 2012 8:57 AM

To me Weight Watchers has always been a sign of the times, reflecting and preaching the beliefs about healthy eating that are prevalent in society at a given point in time. It shows you whatever has become the mainstream of thought. The menu plans are put together by trained dieticians, and I also believe that they are politically influenced as well, in the same way that I believe that U.S. nutritional guidelines are politically influenced. There was a short time that dairy products were actually removed from the list of foods required on the standard weight watchers food plan, but that didn't last for more than probably a year or so, and I think we can all speculate as to what sort of powerful interests would have decided the omission of dairy from their program was unacceptable.

Anyway... one point I want to stress here is that even though the primary emphasis in Weight Watchers is on weight loss, the goal weights are not even within weight ranges that we nutritarians would consider healthful. Have you ever noticed that the weight watchers spokesmodels and success stories still look like they are a bit chunky, and could stand to lose a few?

Personally, I am considered a 'life member' of Weight Watchers because I achieved my goal weight while on their program, and was able to maintain that weight (give or take 2 pounds) for a long enough period of time to be awarded that status. What this means is that I am welcome to come to Weight Watchers meetings for free for the rest of my life, as long as I stay within 2 pounds of my goal weight. The idea behind this is that I might be a good example to have around for others to observe and learn from. Ironically, as a nutritarian, I'm now too far below my goal weight to meet their criteria! For a woman who is 4'11" tall, the Weight Watchers range for acceptable, healthful goal weights is from 99 -124 pounds. I find the idea of it being healthful for a woman who is only 4'11" to weigh 124 pounds to be absolutely outrageous. I can't tell you how disgusted I was with myself at that weight (although I've weighed more than that, and have been even more disgusted). I was downright fat, and there is no question about it.

I'm pretty sure I picked the lowest goal, which was 99 pounds. When I was younger, my goal was originally 95, but they up the weight ranges once you get to be over a certain age (Can you say 'age bias'). Anyway... as of this morning I weighed 92.6, which is plenty of weight for a nutritarian of my height, but too low to be considered healthful by Weight Watchers standards. The bottom line is that nutritarians who are at or near their ideal weight would be considered unhealthfully thin according to Weight Watchers standards.

Given that Weight Watchers reflects the mainstream, this tells us a couple of things that many of us already know:

1) It is considered socially acceptable to weigh more as you get older, and that it is unrealistic to think you can maintain as low a weight as you did when you were younger.

2) Standards of a 'normal' healthy weight in a population where most are overweight will tend to be biased toward the high side.

I think the bottom line is that on Weight Watchers people are 'settling' for goals that are rather modest, and not believing or hoping that they could accomplish much more, and they are being told that achieving these modest goals makes them normal and healthy. This is really all that they could hope for while following a SAD, portion controlled diet. They don't know how much more it would be possible to accomplish following a different sort of diet-style.

Claudia

Diana Zybala - September 24, 2012 9:57 PM

I believe in ETL and have followed it for about 3 years, however, I was unable to shed the last 10 pounds...and found that one can overeat beans, nut based salad dressings, and other ETL foods. I decided to combine the Weight Watchers points plus on ETL. It is working for me....as I needed a more structured framework.

Many ETL'ers do count calories or use the calories restriction chronometer. Perhaps there is not one way for everyone to achieve an ideal weight.

mike rubino - October 1, 2012 1:43 PM

My neighbors are on weight watchers. I think Id rather go out back and see what I could scrounge up out of my garbage can than eat the stuff that WWs sells to them. Talk about fake processed food ugh !

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