Diet Confidential: The New Weight Watchers

Just like celebrity Weight Watcher Oprah Winfrey, I have decades of yo-yo dieting under my belt. To hear her tell it, the new version of the plan is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Personally, I was curious if it might be the kick in the butt I needed to start losing again.

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Serge Bloch

I've been on and off Weight Watchers since the mid '80s, when I started as a pudgy 14-year-old. The original plan included once-a-week liver (gross!) and all in all seemed like a giant cottage cheese fest. Of course things have evolved substantially—as has the science of weight loss—since founder Jean Nidetch started it all with a group of overweight friends in the '60s.

Fast-forward to the plan's most recent iteration, which debuted last December soon after Weight Watchers revealed that Oprah Winfrey had bought a stake in the company and would be its celebrity spokesperson. Then in January Oprah publicly trumpeted a 26-pound weight loss, thanks to WW. She also took to the airwaves in an oft-broadcast TV commercial to proclaim passionately "I love bread" and insist she ate it every day. (Random aside: My kids, 12 and 8, thought the commercial was so hilarious that for months they'd periodically bellow "I love bread!" to crack each other up.)

I was intrigued. I'd had a great stint on the plan in 2013, losing nearly 40 pounds and mostly keeping it off. Then my dad died in 2015 after a long, difficult bout with Parkinson's and, unfortunately, my weight began its inexorable climb. So it was back to Weight Watchers for me, for the umpteenth time.

Up and At It (Again)

I quickly discovered the new plan is a reboot of the points-based system that's been in place since the late '90s. When you join, you're given a daily points target based on height, age, current weight and gender. That target is the number of points you have for the day. All foods and drinks have an assigned points value for a given portion, based not just on calories but also on protein, saturated fat and sugar. After that it's simple math—you start each day with your full number of points, then subtract as you eat and drink your way through until bedtime. You also get some additional weekly points, beyond the daily allotment, to use as you wish. Points values can be looked up digitally via the WW website or mobile app, or in a pocket guide. Careful, honest tracking, digitally or on paper, is key.

Clearly, the points valuations are intended to guide my (admittedly less-than-willing) brain toward a consistent and sustainable pattern of making better food choices. Fruits and most vegetables, except a few starchy ones, such as sweet potatoes or corn on the cob, are 0 points (woo-hoo!), which incentivizes choosing them. Healthy foods—as in picks that are protein-rich, fiber-filled, have little to no added sugar or are low in saturated fat—tend to have appealingly low points tallies. Think cooked shrimp or egg whites.

Things you really should be avoiding the vast majority of the time pack tons of points, pointedly (!?!) meant to make you think twice before taking that first bite. As someone with a sweet tooth the size of Montana, this is not easy to swallow. For instance, a slice of Starbucks Iced Lemon Pound Cake (yum!) clocks in at 24 points—24! That's way more than half of my daily allotment. A scoop of Baskin-Robbins Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream—another of my (many) weaknesses—is 13 points, about the number I would typically have for dinner. Talk about shock and awe.

However, in the good news category, diligently comparing at least eight different Greek yogurts at the supermarket resulted in swapping my usual brand, a 6-point bomb, for Dannon Oikos Triple Zero Coconut Crème Greek Nonfat Yogurt, just 3 points. (I'm so psyched to find a half-the-points pick, it's ridiculous.) That's breakfast. For lunch, 2 ounces of deli-sliced turkey is just 1 point, so I can have what feels like a quite generous amount between two slices of whole wheat bread (5 points) spread with a Laughing Cow Swiss cheese wedge (1 point) with lettuce, tomato and mustard (all free) for a satisfying sub-10-point meal.

Dinner-wise, I discovered that my treasured Trader Joe's Wild Mushroom & Black Truffle Flatbread with Mozzarella Cheese is 13 points for half the pie, which is doable—and if I round it out with a big salad, it even feels splurge-y, sort of. I quickly became adept at defaulting to the types of swaps that keep my point consumption in check so that I can eat three meals plus snacks, because I'm a grazer. For me, the point counts do make it clear at a glance whether something is a good choice...or not. (My cherished Starbucks Iced Lemon Pound Cake is forever ruined—I just can't get that 24 out of my mind.)

Choose Your Booze!

Come the weekends, would I be able to have a drink or two? Yes! Seems WW views cocktails as part of a happy, balanced life. For your reference:

  • 5 ounces red or white wine, 4 SmartPoints
  • Regular 12-ounce beer, 5 SmartPoints (a light beer is 3)
  • 6-ounce margarita, 17 SmartPoints (yikes!)
  • 5-ounce rum and cola, 6 SmartPoints (diet cola cuts the tally to 4)
  • 8-ounce Raspberry-Lemonade Vodka Slushie, 3 SmartPoints

Raspberry-Lemonade Vodka Slushies

Make 6 cups low-calorie raspberry lemonade with powdered drink mix and water. Pour 4 cups into 2 ice cube trays; freeze until solid. Reserve remaining 2 cups in fridge. To make slushies, combine 1 tray lemonade ice cubes, 1 cup reserved refrigerated lemonade, 1⁄2 cup diet lemon-lime soda, 1⁄2 cup vodka and 1⁄4 cup lemon juice in blender. Whirl until smooth. Pour into 4 glasses. Repeat with remaining ingredients to make 4 more slushies. Garnish with a small skewer of raspberries and fresh mint.

Talking Points

Weightwatchers.com is a deep well of information and inspiration, but I prefer hitting up weekly meetings—though it's often a scheduling challenge. I already spend more than enough time glued to my computer and phone, so trolling around the website holds minimal appeal. And frankly, experience has proved that nothing keeps me on track better than the straight-up accountability of a looming weigh-in. The atmosphere at meetings feels more emotionally touchy-feely than I remember, which I attribute to the new WW "Beyond the Scale" theme. The program is much more holistic, emphasizing overall happiness and fulfillment versus weight loss alone. In other words, they say it's not about a certain number on the scale or fitting into a specific pair of pants. Sounds great, but I guess I'm not that deep a thinker—for me, weight loss does typically come down to needing to get back into the clothes I've almost eaten myself out of. If I give any significant thought to the weight-loss process, I usually end up circling around how hard it is and how I hate having to go through it in order to fit into the aforementioned clothes. (Sigh.) I'm sure they're onto something, though, and the broader emphasis is definitely giving me food for thought.

All in all, when I conscientiously divvied up and tracked my points so that I didn't go over for the day, I lost anywhere from 1 to 3 pounds per week. When I was half-assed about tracking and looked the other way if I was out of points but wanted dessert anyway, the scale most assuredly reflected that lack of effort. In other words, the plan itself is easy enough to follow once you commit to learning it, and it works. For me, the magic moment will be when I figure out why I need it over and over again. Looking around at the meetings, at least I know I'm not alone in my struggle.