Weight Watchers overhauls its traditional point system

Dec 06, 2010 Published under Health, KIND Snacks

A recent article in the New York Times reported that Weight Watchers has overhauled its old point system whereby an apple was previously counted equal to an Oreo 100-calorie snack pack.  It is great to see that Weight Watcher’s recognizes that all calories are not created equal, and even better to see them encourage members to practice healthy snacking.

Spotted by Daniel Lubetzky, redacted by Adeena Schlussel.

The New York Times

December 3, 2010

Weight Watchers Upends Its Points System


Their world had been rocked, and the questions came fast and furious: A 31-year-old teacher from Midtown Manhattan who had barely touched a banana in six years wanted to know if she could really consume them with impunity. A small-business owner from TriBeCa wondered whether she was being nudged to part with that second (or third) glass of wine. And a woman with silky brown hair, on her way out the door after a Weight Watchers meeting in the basement of a Park Avenue South office building, had a particularly urgent need.

“I just have one question,” the woman said. “How much is a potato latke? I need to know for tonight.”

They and others had been searching for answers and grappling with their implications since Sunday, when Weight Watchers began unveiling its first major overhaul to its cultlike points system, prompting the 750,000 members who attend weekly meetings across the United States — and some one million online adherents — to rethink how they shop, cook and eat.

The new plan, company officials say, is based on scientific findings about how the body processes different foods. The biggest change: All fruits and most vegetables are point-free (or free of PointsPlus, as the new program is called). Processed foods, meanwhile, generally have higher point values, which roughly translates to: should be eaten less.

“If I lived in the Caribbean, maybe I’d be able to make goal,” said Susan J. Slotkis, 64, an interior designer at the Park Avenue South meeting on Wednesday. “The pineapple is great; all the fruits are fresh; you’re never tempted to drink juice.” In the new system, oranges are free, but eight ounces of orange juice cost three points.

When Weight Watchers introduced its points plan to Americans in 1997, it captivated a generation of women, propelling the company into a $1.4 billion empire. Weight Watchers points became a cultural touchstone: Restaurants like Applebee’s distributed special Weight Watchers menus; food companies like Healthy Choice listed points on their soup cans; and members bought Weight Watchers cookbooks, scales and points calculators. Members pay $12 to $15 a week to attend one of 20,000 weigh-ins and pep talks across the nation, or $65 to use the company’s Internet-monitoring program for three months.

Under the old points plan, all participants were given daily and weekly allowances of points, based on their particular bodies, and each food, from apples to pepperoni pizzas, was given a point value, based primarily on the number of calories it contained, with slight adjustments for fat (bad) and fiber(good).

“You could be holding an apple in one hand, which was two points, and you could be holding a 100-calorie snack pack of Oreos in the other hand, which was also two points,” David Kirchhoff, the president and chief executive of Weight Watchers International, said in a telephone interview.

Now, all of that has been upended. The new system allots points based on a complex formula that considers each item’s mix of protein, fiber,carbohydrates and fat. Making it more confusing, most people are now given more total allowed points — a kind of new math that requires recalculation of what had been ingrained.

Under the old system, for example, the average new member of Weight Watchers was allotted 22 daily points and an extra 35 weekly points. Now, the average new member is allotted 31 daily points and 49 weekly points. So while two potato latkes are now seven points instead of five, their portion of the total is about the same (too high). But a Burger King bacon double cheeseburger is still 12 points, making it slightly less objectionable under the new regime. And that little pack of Oreos? Up a point, to three.

“It’s a complete overhaul; it doesn’t get any bigger than this,” said Karen Miller-Kovach, the chief scientific officer for Weight Watchers International. “Fifteen years ago we said a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. If you ate 100 calories of butter or 100 calories of chicken, it was all the same. Now, we know that is not the case, in terms of how hard the body has to work to make that energy available. And even more important is that where that energy comes from affects feelings of hunger and fullness.”

Some people were drawn to the Weight Watchers point system by the idea that it seemed almost like an anti-diet: you could eat whatever you wanted, as long as you gauged the portion, counted the points and, if necessary, scrimped elsewhere. And while many members are lauding what one blogger described as a “Weight Watchers meets Michael Pollan,“ and celebrating the advent of the guilt-free fruit cup, others are pushing back.

“I don’t want to be forced to choose veggies. I do NOT like veggies or fruit,” one member wrote in an online discussion on the Weight Watchers Web site. “I feel like I am being forced to ‘diet,’ and that is what I DO NOT WANT.”

Kate A. Mack, 28, a high school English teacher in Allentown, Pa., questioned the timing of the shift, between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, long a challenging time for the weight-conscious (a half-cup of reduced-calorie egg nog, for the record, used to be three points and now is four, but remember, the allowed total has changed, too).

“If you’re going to a party, for instance, and don’t know what’s going to be served there,” Ms. Mack posited, “I don’t know what I can or can’t enjoy as a treat because I’m not entirely clear, without taking a second to go into the ladies’ room and go look up the point value on Weight Watchers mobile.”

Weight Watchers officials say the new plan has been in the works for three years and was tested in pilot programs throughout the country over the past year. Ms. Miller-Kovach said that pilot programs showed that, while members ate different foods, their caloric intake was roughly the same and they lost at least as much if not more. Weight Watchers members in Continental Europe have been using a version of PointsPlus for the past year, and those in Britain and Australia made the switch a few weeks ago.

Lauren Cohen, a svelte 64-year-old Weight Watchers group leader with dangly earrings, tall boots and the enthusiasm of a circus announcer, said that one points devotee was particularly agitated upon studying the new system this week. “I lost 64 pounds, I’m at goal, I love points. If it’s not broke, why fix it?” she recalled the man saying.

Her response: “The latest scientific research shows that this will be an even better way to maintain that.”

At the Park Avenue South meeting on Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Cohen warned her clients that, points or no points, even fruits and vegetables had their limits. One Weight Watchers credo, she said — to eat until satisfied, not stuffed — remained firmly in place.

“We’re not talking about running home with a wheelbarrow full of grapes from a vineyard,” she cautioned. Then she noted perhaps the most compelling piece of information, the one that made even the most banana-fearing members perk up.

“You see Jennifer Hudson on the cover of your weekly reader?” she said, gesturing to a picture of the slimmed-down starlet gracing the cover of the Weight Watchers weekly booklet. “Guess what plan she lost that weight on?”

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