Weight Watchers Scam

I used to moderate a weight loss community and we had this whole Weight Watchers trend a while ago and 20 women or so joined it. Only one that was 270lb or so was told to eat above 24 points… Everyone else was supposed to eat under 24 points. 24 points is 1,200 calories, so they were supposed to eat less than where most starvation diets begin. 

–JV1311

This summer I met a number of people doing Weight Watchers.

I also met a number of people doing Weight Watchers for the second, third, fourth or fifth time.

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Now I realize that a number of people have had “success” on WW, in the sense of having lost “weight.” But there begins my first problem with it. “Weight” and “fat” are not the same thing. The first friend I met this summer who’d lost a lot of weight on WW was a shock to me. First, because he was obviously thinner. But second, because he was obviously weaker. I’ve watched him play with teens before, and in the past–though heavier–he had energy and visible muscle tone. This time I was shocked to see how much more quickly he was winded, how disinterested he was in physical activity (compared to his former self), and how flabby his arms had gotten.

He and I are close to the same age, had been eating differently for close to the same amount of time, and had both lost significant amounts of weight. Yet he was visibly less muscular, while I was visibly more so. He was less energetic than I ever remembered him, and I was more energetic than I’d been since high school.

WW is all about counting calories, and as the quote above describes, people are told to eat starvation level amounts of calories. Remember the post about all the horrific health problems that attended Ancel Keys’ conscientious objectors? The ones put on 1800 calorie a day diets? And even the ones before that, in the Minnesota Study, at 2100 calories a day? If you recall:

1. They were constantly hungry.

2. They got so cold they couldn’t get warm, even with lots of clothing. Their metabolisms slowed so far that if they increased their calorie consumption–even by amounts far less than they were originally eating–they would immediately regain the lost weight.

3. They got anemia.

4. They experienced a clinically observable decrease in concentration.

5. They were obviously physically weaker.

6. Their blood pressure and pulse rate dropped precipitously.

7. They completely lost their libido.

8. They didn’t all lose weight as they were supposed to.

9. They went nuts. Five of them completely broke down.

10. They grew so exhausted they could barely function. They became experts at not expending any energy other than what they absolutely had to.

11. When finally allowed to eat everything they wanted, their average food intake rose to 8,000 calories per day. Yet they were still ravenously hungry, and in the end each man weighed an average of 5% more than he did before the experiment. Even more strikingly, they each gained an average of 50% more body fat than they had before they began.

The guys in Ancel’s study were eating 1800 calories a day. Someone eating 29 points on WW is eating 1100-1600 calories a day, depending on exactly what they choose to eat. There’s a word for that. It’s not “diet.”

It’s “starvation.”

Folks, starvation is not good for you. Eating starvation levels of food when you’re eating grains and fruit and sugar cannibalizes your muscles. Your body isn’t stupid. God made you to live. Your body cannibalizes muscle first when it senses starvation because that’s what it was designed to do. It’s protecting your fat so you will have fat reserves to live off of for as long as possible, should you remain starving in the prison camp on Weight Watchers.

Want some studies on that? Here’s one where they put two groups of fat women on extreme diets of 500 calories. One was fed the appropriate amount of protein for their ideal body weight, and the rest fat. The other was fed about equal amounts of protein and carbohydrate and very little fat. The amount of protein the second group were fed–about .8g per kilo–was precisely what “weight-loss experts” tell you is the minimum you need to eat in order to “preserve muscle.” After allowing three weeks for adaptation to the diet, the girls in the first group were losing no muscle at all. The girls eating carbs? Losing muscle all over the place, despite eating “enough” protein.

Or this one, just a general investigation of the effects of entering dietary ketosis–which is what happens when you consume plenty of fat instead of carbohydrate for fuel–which included the preservation of lean muscle tissue.

Or this one, in which 12 men were fed a carb-restricted diet, and hence higher in fat and protein since they were required to eat enough to match the energy intake of the control group: another group of men who continued their habitual 48% carbohydrate diet. Weight Watchers, by the way, says that you must eat 45-65% carbohydrates. Otherwise, you see, you might die.

Anyway.

This particular study was being conducted to see if carb restriction resulted in any dangerous hormonal changes. The guys who ate carb-restricted (only 8% of their diet) not only lost 3.4 kg of confirmed fat, not “weight”, in the ensuing 6 weeks, they also gained 1.1 kg of lean body mass: i.e., muscle. Their hormones, by the way, were perfectly fine.

Another serious problem with Weight Watchers is they keep changing their definition of “success” in order to ensure that more people fit into the successful category. When they first started, you were “successful” if you lost a certain amount of weight. Then they changed that to 20% of your body weight. Let’s say you’re a five-foot, six-inch woman. If you’re 250 pounds that’s 50 pounds gone and 200 pounds you weigh now–which is still pretty overweight.

But most people couldn’t even do that, so they changed it again to 10% of body weight. That would leave you at 225 pounds, and your doctor would still be yelling at you to stop stuffing your face even as Weight Watchers proclaimed you one of their “successes”. But most people still couldn’t do that. So then they changed the definition of success to 5%. Now you’re a Weight Watchers “success story” at 237.5 pounds.

Now WW has a new definition! If two years after you started you’re about five pounds lower, they call you a success.

The amount of water you drink, your salt intake, swollen muscles from exercise, constipation, hormonal changes–everyone’s weight can easily fluctuate five pounds or so in day. Which means that a lot of these WW “successes” might not have lost anything at all.

At each step along the way, WW has been telling us that whatever amount of weight loss they’re currently calling success (20%, 10%, 5%, five pounds) is “known to have a strong impact on health.” Which is precisely the idiocy that the medical community trots out, too.

Doctor: You are a fat cow. At your height you shouldn’t be more than 145 pounds.

Woman: That’s about 45 pounds I need to lose. Can you show me any research explaining why that’s my ideal weight?

Doctor: Well, if you could even lose 20 pounds that would be much better.

Woman: That wasn’t my question…

Doctor: Any amount of weight loss is associated with better health.

Woman: How many people you see actually manage to lose the amount of weight you recommend?

Doctor: Oh, maybe 2%. But you really have got to lose weight. Here is our pamphlet on weight loss. You can see you need to be eating fewer calories and less fat.

Woman: I see. And this has worked for a whole 2% of your patients?

Doctor: They all just lie about how much they eat. Or they don’t exercise.

Woman: I see. Are you this dismissive of all your patients?

Doctor: Only the ugly fat ones. The women, anyway.

Woman: I also wanted to talk to you about this pain I…

Doctor: It’s because you’re fat. Lose some weight. Here, I’ve got a pamphlet.

Nearly everyone who tries simple calorie restriction–either eating the same macronutrient ratio they always did, or eating lower fat–loses some weight.

And nearly all of them gain it back.

Look at this article. Sad first paragraph, no?

Our bodies have a lot of tricks to encourage weight gain after a loss. We get hungrier. Our brains have a more emotional response to food. Our metabolisms start to slow down. And we naturally start to move less. When I say that “we move less”, I’m not just talking about what we think of as “exercise”, I’m talking about the amount we move during the day just in the course of our lives. People who have lost weight just don’t feel like moving around as much. They sit more. They fidget less. It’s the body’s natural way of conserving calories.

You know, back when I restricted my calories and fat, that’s exactly how I felt all the time. That’s the reaction I see out of lots of people who’ve lost weight via starvation: they slow down. Yet I almost laughed when I read that paragraph today. I’ve lost weight, and even before I actually started losing it I had tons of energy once I started eating properly. I’ve got tons of energy now. I’m chaffing at the terrible pollution outside today, because it means I really shouldn’t go run up and down the pedestrian overpass by the river.

The study analyzed in that article indeed found that people who ate a typical WW’s style diet experienced a big reduction in metabolism. The Minnesota Experiment found that though they managed to get their subjects to lose 20-26% of their weight, they saw their metabolisms slow a disproportionate 40%. When you’re feeling slow, what do you do? Eat or sleep.

It’s not at all shocking that people who eat like WW recommends almost always gain the weight back. Making yourself constantly hungry will not be permanently sustainable. It’s also not shocking that those who lose weight by cutting out the grain and fruit and sugar–not the calories and fat–have a better record of maintaining their weight loss and their metabolism.

Unless they’re doing Atkins, of course, and keep adding all that junk back in.

So the reason I think of WW as nothing more than a scam is that they’ve gotten people to pay them for what anyone can do: lose some weight at some point by not eating as much food. They’ve somehow managed to get thousands of people to agree to give them credit for the first half of that equation, but blame only themselves when they gain it back.

In fact, in our world of low-fat, low-calorie dieting, the more weight you lose the more likely you are to gain it back. 36% of those who lose 5% of their body weight maintain it for a whole year. Only 16% of those who lose 10% do so. Only 8% of those who lose 15%. And a measly 4% of those who lose 20%+ of their body weight manage to maintain it for a whole year. WW might be able to help you maintain a small weight loss, in other words, but the more they help you lose, the less likely you’ll be able to maintain it. They’ll take all the money and credit for getting it off you, but then when you put it all back on it’s all your own fault, you slob.

This person has done a lovely job of analyzing WW’s claims. First he/she explains that when we say about 5% of the general population “succeeds” in weight loss, what is actually meant is not that 5% of really fat people are able to lose lots of weight and become forever thin. All that is meant is 5% of fat people see some kind of weight loss that is maintained for one to five years.

The other day on What Not To Wear I saw a women who’d lost and kept off 100 pounds–an amazing achievement, by the way–but obviously needed to lose another 100. According to statistics, she is one of the meager 5% who “succeed,” yet she obviously didn’t consider herself a success at all. No one who saw her, not knowing her story, would ever call her a success or think of her as such. She’s still very fat. The number of people who actually go from really fat to normal weight and stay there is shockingly, horrifically small. So small that there’s not enough of them for anyone to have ever done a verifiable study to come up with a number. And the number of people who’ve kept off significant amounts of weight for more than a couple months, and are still losing weight, is measured in the tenths of percent.

(As an aside, doesn’t that tell you that what we “all know” as a society, in the medical profession, and in nutrition about “how to lose weight” is obviously completely, utterly, soberingly, dead wrong?)

And isn’t that what we really ought to be using to gauge WW’s success? Not people who manage to offload a bit of tonnage for a little while, but people who actually return to normal weights and health? Wouldn’t that imply that what WW is doing is actually healthy and worth paying for? If WW doesn’t have any better of a track record than ordinary people just cutting calories on their own, why is anyone paying them?

As for WW’s personal track record, what we find through further analysis is that about 38,000 people a year, between 1995 and 2000 in this particular study, reached their goal with WW and stayed there.

“Stayed there” in WeightWatcher’sSpeak means “six weeks.”

That sounds like a nice number till you look at member registrations for that time period and see that they had about 600,000. Not 600,000 total, but 600,000 who stayed with the program for the year. Only a measly 6% actually reached their goal. And more significantly, the vast majority weren’t all that heavy to begin with. The average starting BMI of the successful was 27: i.e., no obese people. A BMI of 27 is often described as the point where you aren’t dangerously overweight, but people who look at you think: “Hey, she could stand to lose a couple pounds.”  That means these people only had to lose 10-20 pounds to reach their goal weight.

Not all that impressive, Weight Watchers.

Following these people even longer (beyond the 6 weeks that WWs calls “success”) we find that only 3.9% were at or below their goal weight five years later. 3.9% of 6% means that only 0.24% of WW participants actually got thin and stayed there on the WW program.

Which leads me to my final conclusion. If you once had success on Weight Watchers, good for you. It wasn’t WW, anymore than we’re going to say that the world’s secretaries are ultimately responsible for all the business success of their executive bosses. WW pushes paper and organizes and runs some numbers, but you did all the work. And what you did is what people have been trying for years and which has only very, very rarely succeeded in the long-term: starved yourself into weight loss. A testament to your willpower, no doubt. But a viable long-term strategy for being healthy and trim? Not on your life.

Your healthy strategy is to pay no attention to idiots like this:

Can’t put down the box of Oreos? There might be a compelling biological reason for that. New research suggests that sugary, fatty [note that they didn’t make the slightest effort to find out if it was the fat, the sugar or a combination of the two that caused the reaction] treats can elicit the same reaction and activate the brain in a similar manner as cocaine and morphine, at least in lab rats. Oreos weren’t specifically singled out for their ability to trigger a snack attack, they were just a handy device to get enough fat and sugar in the rat’s habitat…

A spokeswoman…cautioned people against associating Oreo with the findings since the cookies were used as “a proxy for a non-specific ‘sweet’ variable….While it may seem simple to bucket foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ the reality is that foods are complex, and encouraging people to enjoy a balanced diet paired with physical activity is most important,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.

Folks, neither in this age nor the next is there a world in which Oreos are a necessary part of a balanced diet. Sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, wheat, canola oil, cornstarch, and unfermented soy are not a balanced diet. Those things inflame your arteries, spike your blood sugar, do weird things to your brain, and put a ridiculous strain on your arteries, liver, and pancreas. You don’t need any of the trash that’s in Oreos, in whatever form.

If you go with WW, those kinds of things are still all on the diet, albeit in small, treat-sized amounts. Go with WW or anything similar and you’re fighting and clawing and sweating your way to shedding a few pounds that you’ll be lucky to still be rid of this time next year.

Plato says he’s hungry

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2 thoughts on “Weight Watchers Scam

  1. And just to give you a benchmark by which to compare what I’m doing with the success rate of WW, I’m going to give you some real numbers. This is not bragging; because I did not sweat and starve my way to these numbers. I just changed how I ate, held on for a short couple weeks of feeling tired and craving junk, and then my body flipped some kind of switch and started changing on its own.

    In 6 months I lost 100 pounds.

    6 months later, not only have I maintained that loss; I’m in the elusive “still losing” category with 25 more pounds down the drain. Or wherever it goes.

    That’s 42% of my body weight.

    I’m never hungry.

    I’m not exhausted. I want to move and have lots of energy.

    I don’t crave foods of any sort.

    I never exercised for weight loss. I do a little running about to burn off energy, and weightlifting now for fitness only.

    I have packed on muscle everywhere.

    Maybe I’m unique. A freak.

    Only that doesn’t explain why the Roommate–a totally different person with whom I share no genes–eats an identical diet and had identical results. She lost 50 pounds in 6 months and has maintained that for 6 more, as well as losing a few more over the second 6 months.

    27.7% of her body weight.

    She’s also much more active, never hungry, never craves foods, never exercised and has packed on muscle.

    1. You’re an inspiration! Thanks for your blog! I started 7 weeks ago and have lost 14 pounds, feel great and by the way, my scale had not budged for 2 years despite a very disciplined WW approach to eating and exercise. I am cancelling my membership today. I still am working on re-thinking everything that I have been taught and practiced for years. Sometimes, I am mad at how many ways I have tried to lose, had some success, only to gain it back and more……..and all the time thinking I was a glutton, a big fat slob and failure in self-control. Thanks for sharing!

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