March 08, 2012

For decades, dieters have joined Weight Watchers for their weekly weigh-ins and supportive group meetings. But the diet of today is quite different from that of years past. Weight Watchers International is continually honing its program to stay relevant with dieters across the globe.

The company's latest update came in 2011 with its PointsPlus program, which was modified further in 2012. On this plan, every food has a PointsPlus value, which takes into account protein, carbs, fat, and fiber—all bundled into one number. Members receive a personalized PointsPlus target daily, so they know how much to eat in order to lose weight safely and effectively without feeling deprived.

This isn't a one-size-fits-all plan, as everything is customizable, including a points "budget" that you can spend any way you want. You also have the option to use a simpler food tracking or point-filing system on those days when your schedule is hectic. What's more, you are not locked into in-person meetings (though this traditional course is sill widely used). Weight Watchers online allows you to join a web-based program that delivers more than 3,500 recipe ideas; checklists to help you stay on track; and tools to help monitor your progress.

After people find out that there's no food type that is off-limits, and that you benefit from the camaraderie of other dieters, it's easy to see why Weight Watchers is so successful. Sure, there may be other ways to lose weight without dropping cash for a membership or taking time to track "points," but the plan does seem to work. Who could argue with Jennifer Hudson's sleek new physique?

Basic principles
No fads or quick weight-loss schemes here. Weight Watchers takes a sane approach to dieting. The philosophy, in a nutshell, is that physical activity, combined with healthy eating habits, can promote weight loss. It's also the same approach that can keep weight off. Dieters can attend local meetings or sign up for an online program.

How the diet works
To follow the PointsPlus program you can attend the group meetings or track your weight loss online. The program basics are the same for either method. In meetings you'll receive guidance, strategies, and tips from a leader who has lost weight with Weight Watchers, get encouragement and ideas from other group members, and weigh-in confidentially at multiple locations that have convenient hours. Online members receive interactive tools for monitoring food intake, physical activity, and weight. There are also customized guides based on your current stage of progress, including recipes and access to mobile tools. And Weight Watchers isn't just for women. The company offers a flexible program to fit any lifestyle.

What you can eat
The goal is to eat whatever you like as long as you stay at or below your daily PointsPlus target number. There's plenty of room for snacks and treats, too.

Does the diet take and keep weight off?
It would seem so. A 2011 study funded by the company and published in Lancet revealed that overweight and obese adults who followed the Weight Watchers program lost more than twice as much weight as those who received weight-loss advice from a doctor or nurse. Those participants who stuck with Weight Watchers for one year lost, on average, 15 pounds, compared to just seven pounds for those who had regular doctor/nurse visits.

Is the diet healthy?
Provided you spend your points wisely, the plan is well-balanced. A community, either online or in meetings, provides feedback and accountability, as well as an opportunity to discover new ideas on how to be successful. The lack of food restrictions helps make Weight Watchers more than a temporary diet, but rather a lifestyle change. The idea is based on a holistic approach to weight loss with four fundamentals: eat smarter, helpful habits, move more, and get support.

What do the experts say?
"Of all the diet programs out there, this one is probably the best," says John Foreyt, PhD, a recognized expert in the field of obesity and weight control and a professor at Baylor College of Medicine. "The group support the program provides is one of their strongest features." Without that support, many people have trouble sticking with a diet, Foreyt says. Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, a professor at Georgia State University, likes the fact that dieters learn how to set realistic weight-loss goals and that they can choose from a huge variety of foods with assigned values. "The downside is that the Points system can be abused," she says. "Someone could potentially spend a whole day's Points on ice cream or junk food." That's not what the plan encourages, of course, but you do have the freedom to choose the foods you like.

Who should consider the diet?
Success stories on the company's website feature dieters in their 20s through 50s, both women and men, and people who have lost anywhere from less than 25 pounds to more than 100! Anyone looking to learn a healthier way of living would find the program suitable for success, though if you think you'll have trouble saying no to your favorite high-calorie foods sometimes, or find yourself binging, this may not be the best choice.

Bottom line
There are no required foods, and the program gives you the flexibility to enjoy extras and treats, which is important to long-term success. You'll learn to choose foods that can keep you feeling fuller for longer, and develop an exercise regimen for an all-inclusive approach to a healthier lifestyle. Both meetings- and online-based versions of the program have their benefits, just find which is best for your schedule and needs and see the weight come off.

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