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Weight Watchers is the largest commercial weight-loss program in the world. The diet is based on calorie and portion control while eating regular food, exercise, and behavior modification.
By the mid 2000s, more than 25 million people worldwide had participated in the Weight Watchers program that was started in the living room of an overweight housewife in Queens, New York. When Jean Nidetch needed to lose weight, she attended a diet clinic sponsored by the New York City Board of Health. However, after she had lost about 20 lb (10 kg), she found it hard to remain motivated to stay on the diet. Her solution was to ask a group of overweight friend to come to her house and talk about their eating and dieting challenges. This group evolved into a regular support group. While attending this group, Nidetch had the insight that dieting was not just about food, but about changing behaviors.
Two years later in 1963, Nidetch established Weight Watchers as a company and held her first public meeting. Demand for her program far exceeded expectations. Over the years the program evolved to incorporate new research in nutrition. Behavior management modules and an exercise program were added. In 1978 the company was bought by H. J. Heinz Company, which added a line Weight Watchers supermarket foods. Today Weight-Watcher endorsed cookbooks, exercise tapes, and a magazine all are available to support dieters who are either Weight Watcher members or who want to try the diet plan on their own.
The fundamental message of the Weight Watcher program is “move more, eat less.“There is nothing unique about this approach to dieting. What distinguishes the Weight Watchers program are the tools it provides members to stay motivated to meet these goals.
There are two ways to join Weight Watchers. The traditional method is to attend weekly Weight Watchers meetings. More than 29,000 meetings are held in Weight Watchers centers, churches, hospitals, and workplaces each week in 27 different countries. Meetings last about 50 minutes and are led by a trained Weight Watcher member who has lost weight using the program and has successfully kept the weight off.
Upon registering, members set their first goal as losing 10% of their body weight. Once this goal is reached, a final weight goal is selected based on the individual's height, age, and gender. In 2007, registration in the United States cost about $30 and weekly meetings between $10 and $12, Discounts are available in the form of monthly passes, and each year Weight Watchers offers at least one period when the registration fee is waived. A bring-a-friend program allows people to attend a meeting before signing up for the program. Members can attend any meeting anywhere in the world and have the option of attending more than one meeting each week at no additional charge, but they can only be weighed once a week.
Weight Watchers Online is a program designed to let people follow the Weight Watchers diet at home without attending weekly meetings. The step-by-step plan provides the same information as the in-person plan, but lacks the support of and accountability to the group. Weight Watches Online costs about half as much as the in-person meetings.
Weight Watchers meetings are a combination of nutrition education, behavior modification, and motivational psychology. Weight Watchers diet plans have evolved over the years. The current system gives members a choice of two plans, he Flex Plan or the Core Plan. The Flex Plan assigns a point value per serving to every food. Points are based on the amount of calories, dietary fiber, and fat in the food. One point is roughly equal to 50 calories. Written material and an online database give the point value of most common foods. A small cardboard Points Calculator that works something like an old-fashioned slide rule lets members calculate the point value of any food based on nutrition information on the product's label. Dieters are assigned a number of Daily Points. They may eat anything they wish so long as they stay within their allotted points. In reality, to follow the plan dieters must select low calorie options—lean meats, lots of fruits and vegetables, and reasonable helpings of carbohydrates. Points are adequate for an occasional treat.
The Core Plan gives dieters a list of “core foods.” They may eat unlimited quantities (within reason) of any of the core foods without weighing or measuring. This simplifies shopping and food preparation, but also reduces variety in the diet. A weekly points allowance can be spent on foods that are not core foods. Dieters are told to choose either the Flex Plan or the Core Plan, but they may switch from one to the other on a weekly basis.
Motivation is a big part of the Weight Watchers program. At every in-person meeting, the member is privately weighed and their weight recorded. Even small successes are celebrated. Members receive recognition for every 5 lb (2 kg) of weight loss, along with larger recognition for attending 16 weekly meetings (the number Weight Watchers says is needed to change behavior), losing 10% of their body weight, and reaching their goal weight. Lifetime membership is conferred on individuals who reach their goal weight and stay at or below that weight for at least six weeks. Lifetime members may attend meetings free so long as they weigh in at no more than 2 lb (1 kg) above their goal weight. If their weight is out of that range, they pay the weekly meeting fee, but never have to pay a registration fee once they have achieved Lifetime status.
Daily exercise is strongly encouraged at Weight Watchers, but it is not a required part of the program. Individuals who exercise can earn extra points to spend on food if they wish. Walking is strongly encouraged, and Weight Watchers sells branded pedometers to encourage walkers to gradually increase their walking activity to 10,000 steps a day (about 5 miles). Some motivational exercises involve group tracking of physical activity. For example, one group may set themselves the challenge to, as a group, walk the number of steps it would take to travel from the distance from Boston to Washington DC within a certain number of weeks.
Weight Watchers is a calorie controlled, portion-controlled diet plan that is intended to change the individual' eating and exercise habits for a lifetime.
Some benefits of the Weight Watchers program include:
- The diet uses regular food, keeping costs low. Weight Watchers-branded foods are available in most supermarkets, but members are not required to buy them to use the diet plan.
- The Weight Watchers plan does not require or encourage individuals to use dietary supplements.
- The diet plan is designed for slow, steady weight loss of between 1.5 and 2 lb per week (0.6-1 kg)
- Dieters are given tools to explore the emotional roots of their eating problems so that they can be understood and changed.
- Membership is on a pay-as-you-go system. There are no long-term contracts or large upfront fees.
- The program has an extensive selection of approved recipes and support tools available at no additional charge.
- The POINTS system makes it possible to fit unusual or ethnic foods into the diet.
- It is not necessary to cook separate meals for other family members. Home cooked meals that fit the Weight Watchers diet plan are suitable (and healthy) for the entire family.
- The Weight Watchers program is recognized as safe and healthy by many accredited medical organizations. In some cases, the member's health insurance will pay a portion of the meeting fees.
- Weight Watchers has a special set of weight-loss tool designed just for men.
Despite these benefits, the Weight Watchers program is not for everyone. Some people find the group meeting a bit too cheerleaderish to feel comfortable. However many dieters attend the same meeting week after week and develop relationships with other members and a sense of accountability to the group that motivates them to stay on the diet.
Weight Watchers does not accept children under age 10 or pregnant women. Children under age 17 must present written medical permission to join the program. Teens and breastfeeding women must agree to follow a special plan to meet their dietary needs. Weight Watchers will not accept anyone whose weight is within 5 lb (2.3 kg) of the lowest weight in their goal range, nor does it accept people with a diagnosis of bulimia nervosa (binge and purge disorder). The Weight Watchers program is not intended to treat or cure any particular disease or disorder.
Individuals who are under treatment for an illness, taking prescription drugs, or on a therapeutic diet (e.g. low sodium, gluten-free) should consult their doctor about the Weight Watchers plan and follow any changes or modifications the physician makes to the Weight
Watchers plan. Failure to do this can increase the risk of developing health complications.
Of all the commercial diet plans, Weight Watchers is the plan that is most enthusiastically accepted by the medical community. The program has been in existence for more than 40 years. Many independent studies have confirmed that it is a safe and effective way to lose weight. In comparison studies, members that attend Weight Watchers meetings lose more weight than those who join the program but do not go to meetings. The Weight Watchers plan also compares favorably to other diet plans in terms of total weight loss and maintenance of weight loss. Unlike some diets, the Weight Watchers plan does not address specific health issues such as lowering blood pressure or cholesterol levels, or controlling type 2 diabetes without drugs, although these effects may occur as a result of adherence to the diet and weight loss.
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Tish Davidson, A.M.