Why the Much-Hyped Weight Watchers Study Sets You Up for Disappointment

Can your doctor really help you lose weight? How does physician treatment compare to a commercial weight loss program?

Is the Glass 6 Pounds Full or 42 Pounds Empty?

The media have been overflowing with a recent British study that compared weight loss results of visits to a doctor vs. the Weight Watchers program. A Google search for the common headline “Weight Watchers Doubles Weight Loss” got me 2.7 million results.

This research, published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, is based on a year-long study of 772 overweight and obese adults in the UK, Germany, and Australia. About half were randomly assigned to see their doctor regularly to help them lose weight (called “standard care”), while the other half attended Weight Watchers meetings for free.

The laudatory reporting makes it sound like Weight Watchers has a path to health and a trim body. A review of the actual data, as opposed to the overblown stories, shows just the opposite. The study results indicate this commercial program will disappoint in term of both health and weight. These common programs will keep you from the true weight loss secret: a whole foods, plant-based diet.

Here’s what the routine media won’t tell you. Before the study started, the average participant in The Lancet research was about 5 feet 5 inches tall, weighed 191 pounds, and had an obese BMI of 31.5 for the Weight Watchers group. BMI (Body Mass Index) is a measure of the relationship of your weight to your height, and is commonly used to determine if you are normal weight, overweight, or obese.

Over the course of the year-long study, the participants who received standard care from a doctor lost, on average, about 5 pounds.

If you are overweight, you may dread weighing yourself.

This does not include the people who dropped out of the study. These people probably lost even less, as unsuccessful results will discourage participants from continuing.

The participants who went to Weight Watchers over the year of the study, with the time spent on meetings, counseling, portioning out food, counting points, setting goals, and all the other program activities lost, on average, 11 pounds. Again, this does not include the results of the drop-outs. In other words, Weight Watchers was good, on average, for an additional 6 pounds of lost weight (compared to just going to a doctor) over the course of an entire year!

To get to a BMI of 23, a truly healthy weight as supported by numerous research studies, the participants needed to drop to 138 pounds. In other words, they had to lose 53 pounds, not the 11 they actually experienced. So maybe a year was not enough to lose that much weight? Actually at a safe pound a week, you can easily lose 53 pounds in a year. This study’s published data show that, for the Weight Watchers group, weight loss leveled off after 9 months. The data did not indicate any further weight reduction was happening or that the participants would lose more than 11 pounds over time.

So here’s the data summary for the average Weight Watchers’ participant:

  • Beginning of study: 5’5” tall and 191 pounds – classified as obese
  • One year later: 5’5” tall and 180 pounds – still in the obese range
  • Still to go for a truly healthy weight – another 42 pounds to get to 138
  • Rate at which weight was being lost at the end of the year – zero

Health should be the driving reason to lose weight, not cosmetic appearance.

The researchers in The Lancet study advocate weight loss as a powerful method to reduce the risk of chronic illness, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Did this happen for the Weight Watchers participants to any greater extent than it did for the “standard care” patients? Here’s a summary of the published data:

  • The Weight Watchers participants did not fare any better than the standard care participants in lowering blood pressure, glucose, triglycerides, total cholesterol, or LDL cholesterol.
  • The Weight Watchers group did have small additional improvements in insulin and the ratio of total to HDL cholesterol. Although these changes were statistically significant, their clinical significance in preventing and reversing disease is likely to be marginal.

The results of The Lancet study (which, by the way, was actually funded by Weight Watchers International) are consistent with an earlier review of long-term weight loss for a number of commercial programs. This prior review, published in the prestigious medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine, cited research that Weight Watchers participants (those who did not drop out) lost 5.3% of their initial weight at one year and maintained a loss of 3.2% of their initial weight at two years. In The Lancet study, the Weight Watchers participants lost 11 pounds or 5.8% of their initial weight, which is virtually identical to the 5.3% reported previously in the earlier research.

Yet women who join a weight loss program yearn to lose 32% of their original weight. Most are going to be left disappointed. In fact, their wallets may be left lighter than their scales are. A search of current Weight Watchers charges in San Diego (this may vary in other locations) showed an annual program cost of between $479 and $728, depending on payment method.

These facts are not intended to in any way put down the efforts of anyone seeking trim weight and better health with a commercial weight loss program. Any success – in fact, any sincere effort – should be congratulated and acknowledged. Commitment and persistence are laudatory qualities. But they can be put to better use. In fact, unsuccessful weight loss programs can be dangerous if

You really can lose weight - and without hunger, deprivation, or portion control - on a whole foods, plant-based diet.

they discourage you from starting the eating plan that really works.

The path to permanent, hunger-free weight loss and drug-free good health is a whole foods, plant-based diet. The story of San’Dera Prude (the reality star San’Dera Nation in the film Forks over Knives) shows the contrast between commercial program results and feasting on nature’s finest offerings.

Just before she began a whole foods, plant-based diet, San’Dera had lost 30 pounds on Weight Watchers, but her diabetes was still not controlled. Now she consumes a delicious, varied diet of vegetables, fruits, beans, potatoes, and whole grains. San’Dera is free of her diabetes and eats whenever she is hungry without having to worry about portion size, calories, or points.

The same spectacular results can be waiting for you on a whole foods, plant-based diet. You can experience more weight loss than you would have dared hope for without counting calories or points, without deprivation, without disappointment.

If you want to learn more about a whole foods, plant-based diet for weight loss and meaningful health improvement, you might enjoy these success stories: Judi Menzel (30 pounds), Todd Rosenthal (50 pounds), Meridith Hayden (80 pounds), Mike Vee (90 pounds). You may also want to check out the post Weight Loss – Success At Last and the film Forks over Knives.

You may also want to check out Six Reasons Portion Control Will Make You Overweight.

Intrigued? Now you can use our Whole Foods Blog Finder to target informative, fun postings on plant-based nutrition. Quick information at no cost!

Blog posting by Janice Stanger, Ph.D. Janice authored The Perfect Formula Diet: How to Lose Weight and Get Healthy Now With Six Kinds of Whole Foods. This easy-to-follow eating plan is built on whole foods, plant-based diet that can prevent, and even reverse, most chronic disease as well as get you to your perfect weight.



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3 Responses to “Why the Much-Hyped Weight Watchers Study Sets You Up for Disappointment”

  1. Dolores says:

    I guess I’m a little confused as to why Weight Watchers is getting poo pooed on. I’m currently on a whole foods, plant-based AND on Weight Watchers, and it works great! Fruits, whole grains, legumes, and veggies are highly encouraged.

    I know A LOT of vegans on the WW plan that are highly successful. In fact, they even have separate information and areas to support a whole foods vegan diet. It teaches you portion control, which is needed in our society since portion distortion is at an all time high. Saying that calorie counting doesn’t matter is very irresponsible.

    Please do your research. Postings like this make me disturbed.

  2. admin says:

    If calorie counting works for you then go for it. The critical thing is to be whole foods plant-based. Most people on this diet do not need to count calories, points, or anything else because their bodies’ sensitive sensors do it for them. Some may need more support from any of a variety of sources and that is to be encouraged.

  3. Heather says:

    I am a lifetime WW member. Considering the Home Ec didn’t fully embrace nutrition in high school, I learned alot about fruits & veggies basics but I agree they are not the answer. I never maintained on their restrictions and at each of our meetings, they promoted processed food…their products in the freezer case, in the snack aisle etc. They talked whole based food but I don’t feel they truly wanted you to cook…they wanted you to buy the frozen micro meals.

    And according to WW my BMI is obese. Which I laugh at…as their counter doesn’t take into effect muscle mass. i weight train as well and have more muscle than fat yet am a size 8. Muscle and fat weigh the same, yet fat takes up more space and muscle is more compact. To get true results, measuring your body fat is key. WW doesn’t educate on muscle, and the more muscle you have the more calories you burn resting. When I lost weight on WW i lost muscle so I had no tone, had cellulite fit in the same pants and weighed less. Now i weigh more by 12 lbs and still wear same pants although they look better now! And as a woman, you can have muscle and not be bulky….don’t think of those body builders that’s extreme. Good quality muscle is a good thing.

    I agree with Delores, do your own research. Everyone is unique and one program won’t work for everyone. Find a health coach that will learn about you and help guide you. Going to mass meetings is general info without the one on one approach, you may not fully understand how to make eating work for your life.