It was founded by Jean Nidetch, a Brooklyn homemaker, in 1963. Nidetch and a group of friends in Queens, NY, started meeting once a week to talk about how to lose weight.
Today, Weight Watchers is an international company and the largest commercial weight loss program in the United States (U.S.). Approved by many physicians, it is available in various settings, from the local community to the workplace and online.
The program includes regular meetings, self-help type learning sessions, group support, and a points system. The dieter aims for a target weight or a body mass index (BMI) of between 20 and 25, considered the ideal range.
This article is part of a series called What are the eight most popular diets today?.
Personalized plans, meetings, one-to-one coaching, and online tools help dieters achieve their goals.
Community is important for Weight Watchers. It provides a support network for people who want to lose weight. This, they say, is essential for both short-term and long-term success.
The support system provides ongoing positive reinforcement for dieters. Attempting to lose weight can be stressful, but community support can make the process less daunting.
Weight Watchers members attend regular meetings, where they learn about nutrition and exercise, as well as having their weight loss progress monitored.
Anyone can join Weight Watchers, as long as they are at least 5 pounds (lb), or 2.3 kilograms (kg), over the minimum weight for their height.
Busy people who cannot attend meetings can sign up to the online community.
Apart from group meetings, Weight Watchers offers one-on-one coaching and a personalized action plan. A personal coach can help the individual make a plan that suits their lifestyle and routine.
Members can communicate with their coach by email, text, or phone.
Weight Watchers dieters are not restricted to specific foods or activities. Instead, they use a point system to monitor themselves on a daily basis. This makes them accountable for their weight loss activities each day. Members can record smart points on their mobile device.
The point system helps people lose weight over the long term.
Points depend on fat, sugar, and protein. The higher the protein content, the lower the points gained. The higher the fat and sugar content, the more points that food has, and the less you can eat.
The points encourage members to change their dietary habits, to eat more fruit, vegetable, and lean protein, and less fatty, sugary food.
Here is an example:
- an egg is worth 2 points
- two tablespoons of low-fat cheddar cheese are worth 1 point
- chopped tomatoes, onion and fresh herbs are worth 0 points
- one tablespoon of olive oil is worth 1 point
A person who eats a 2-egg cheese omelet fried with olive oil and sprinkled with tomato, onion and herbs uses up 4 points. If their target for the day is 30 points, they now have 26 points left.
A person will aim to achieve within a certain range of points, depending on how heavy they are and how much weight they need to lose.
A person who weighs 150 pounds, for example, will aim to gain 18 to 23 points a day. Someone who weighs over 350 pounds may aim to collect between 32 and 37 points in a day.
Members also can gain "Fit points" for activities such as cleaning, walking, or gardening.
An etool can be used to record the points digitally.
Each person has their own daily and weekly target points to meet in their own way, but within the limits agreed.
Members who keep within a certain weight range during the Maintenance period do not pay to attend meetings.
After an initial weight loss period, members can reach their target weight. At this point, they enter a maintenance period. Their daily allowance increases by 6 points, but they continue to track their food intake and activity levels.
For 6 weeks, they gradually increase their food intake until they are neither losing nor gaining weight.
During these 6 weeks, there are regular weigh-ins. If a member manages to stay within 2 pounds, or 0.91 kg of their target weight during the 6-week period, they then become a "Lifetime Member."
Lifetime Members can attend any Weight Watchers meeting free of charge as long as they weigh in once every month, and do not stray from their target weight by more than 2 pounds or 0.91 kg.
Lifetime members who drift from their weight target range have to pay weekly for meetings. They can then recover their Lifetime membership by going through the process again.
Findings published in The Lancet in 2011 suggested that patients who were referred by their doctors to Weight Watchers lost about twice as much weight as those on standard weight loss care over a 12-month period.
The researchers concluded:
"Referral by a primary health-care professional to a commercial weight loss programme that provides regular weighing, advice about diet and physical activity, motivation, and group support can offer a clinically useful early intervention for weight management in overweight and obese people that can be delivered at large scale."
Another study, published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, found that adults who attended at least 2 in every 3 Weight Watchers sessions for 6-months significantly reduced their fasting glucose and insulin levels, as well as losing weight.
In 2011, researchers described Weight Watchers as a "useful first line weight loss intervention" for the United Kingdom's National Health Service (NHS) to refer patients to if they needed and wanted to lose weight.
A review of 45 studies, published in 2015 in Annals of Internal Medicine, suggests that Weight Watchers may be a suitable program for physicians to recommend to patients who wish to lose weight.
Anyone who is considering a radical change to their diet should discuss plans with their physician first.
How to join
Dieters can either join a Weight Watchers program online or in person, and they can opt for meetings only, or they can add an online option, individual coaching, or both. Attending meetings is recommended.
The features offered include:
- Food and activity tracking
- Personalized goals
- Weekly group meetings
- 24/7 online chat support
- Synching with fitness trackers
- Private weigh-in every week
- Guidebooks and resources
- Personal coach and unlimited one-on-one phone sessions
The Weight Watchers website provides a wide range of recipes to help their members lose weight and engage in a healthier lifestyle.
The cost of joining Weight Watchers depends on the package and the location of the meetings. A monthly pass gives access to unlimited meetings and etools. It may be cheaper to buy a 3-monthly subscription.