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Weight watchers

The aim:

Weight loss.

The claim:

You’ll drop up to 2 pounds weekly.

The theory:

There’s more to dieting than counting calories—if you make healthy choices that fill you up, you’ll eat less. Weight Watchers’ PointsPlus program, launched in November 2010, assigns every food a points value, based on its protein, carbohydrate, fat, fiber, calories, and how hard your body has to work to burn it off. Choices that fill you up the longest “cost” the least, and nutritionally dense foods cost less than empty calories. So if you’re wavering between a 200-calorie fruit smoothie and a 200-calorie iced coffee, the smoothie is the smarter choice.

How does the Weight Watchers Diet work?

There’s no fixed membership period; many people who join Weight Watchers stick with it even after they’ve shed unwanted pounds. You can eat whatever you want—provided you stick to your daily PointsPlus target, a number based on your gender, weight, height, and age. You can find the points values of more than 40,000 foods on Weight Watchers’ website. Processed choices like bologna usually have the highest point values (meaning they should be eaten in small amounts or less often) while fresh fruits and vegetables carry zero points, so you can eat as many as you’d like. That’s because they’re high in fiber and are more filling than, say, a candy bar. (Fruit juice, dried fruit, and starchy vegetables don’t count as freebies, since they’re higher in calories.) Weight Watchers also pushes specially- designated Power Foods, or the best choices among similar foods. If you’re mulling 10 types of canned soup, for example, you can quickly see which has the least sugar and sodium, the most fiber, and the healthiest types and amounts of fat.

The company offers hundreds of recipes, each with a PointsPlus value, to show how it fits into your eating plan. If you’re preparing a dish that’s not listed in the database, you can calculate points ingredient by ingredient, using tools on the company’s website.

Weight Watchers isn’t only about what you eat; support is also a big component. Though you can choose to follow the plan online only, the company says dieters lose about three times more weight if they attend weekly meetings, too. What happens during those get-togethers? You’ll swap weight-loss tips and recipes with other members, and step on the scale for a confidential weigh-in.

Will you lose weight?

Most studies suggest Weight Watchers is effective. None have evaluated the new PointsPlus program, which replaced the Points program that preceded it. But the new system is not different enough from the old to negate previous findings.

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  • Short-term weight loss is a reasonable goal. Researchers compared the effectiveness of four commercial weight loss programs (Atkins, Weight Watchers, Slim Fast, and Eat Yourself Slim) in overweight or obese adults. After four weeks, Weight Watchers dieters were down an average of 6 pounds, compared with 10 pounds for Atkins, 6 for Slim Fast, and 7 for Eat Yourself Slim. After that first month of the six-month study, dieters continued to lose weight, with no significant differences in weight loss among the groups. The findings were published in the British Medical Journal in 2006.
  • Evidence on long-term weight loss is promising, too. In an analysis of more than 600 Weight Watchers participants, researchers found that nearly 60 percent stayed within 5 pounds of their goal weight one year after completing the program, according to a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2008. That number dropped to 45 percent two years after program completion and 37 percent five years later, suggesting Weight Watchers is not only an effective way to lose weight but also reasonably effective at keeping it off.
  • Weight Watchers is more effective than standard weight-loss guidance, according to a study published in 2011 in the Lancet. Researchers tracked 772 overweight and moderately obese people who either followed Weight Watchers or got weight-loss guidance from their primary care doctors. After a year, those in the Weight Watchers group had dropped 15 pounds compared with 7 pounds for the doctor-advised group. What’s more, 61 percent of the Weight Watchers dieters stuck with the program for the full 12 months the study lasted, compared with 54 percent for the standard-care group. The program’s success is likely explained by its regular weigh-ins and group meetings, which hold dieters accountable while offering support and motivation. The study was funded by Weight Watchers, but an independent research team was responsible for all data collection and analysis.
  • Another study, published in 2011 in the British Medical Journal, found that people lost more weight—and saved money—when they enrolled in a commercial weight-loss program as opposed to a primary care-based program. After 12 weeks, Weight Watchers participants had lost 9.8 pounds; those on a primary care-guided plan had dropped 3 pounds.
  • After comparing the menus of eight popular commercial weight-loss programs, researchers praised Weight Watchers’ emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and foods high in whole grains and low in trans fats. The program also got high marks for providing ample fiber, which helps dieters feel fuller for longer, thus promoting weight loss, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 2007.
  • The program’s emphasis on support helps its effectiveness—if you go to the group meetings. Weight Watchers dieters who attended the most weekly group sessions over a two-year period, rather than routinely skipping the meetings, kept the most weight off, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2005. About half the participants stopped attending weekly meetings within the first six weeks, and 70 percent stopped within 12 weeks.
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