Weight Watchers Diet Overview

Scorecard

Overall
Weight Loss Short-term
Weight Loss Long-term
Easy to Follow
Nutrition
Safety
For Diabetes
For Heart Health

Scores are based on experts' reviews

Pros & Cons

  • Eat what you want; no foods off-limits
  • Flexibility to shape your own diet
  • Tedious point-tallying
  • Pricey

Do's & Don'ts

Do: Stick to your daily PointsPlus target See more Do's & Don'ts

Overview

Type:

Balanced.

Resembles these U.S. News-rated diets:

Jenny Craig, Mayo Clinic Diet

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.

Here’s what several key studies had to say about Weight Watchers:

  • 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.
  • A 2012 study compared Weight Watchers to professionally-directed weight-loss treatments. It found that dieters stuck with traditional Weight Watchers longer and were more likely to lose weight than they were with other approaches. Nearly 150 overweight or obese men and women were assigned to one of three groups: a behavioral weight-loss treatment led by a health professional; Weight Watchers, whose groups are led by peer counselors; or a hybrid program that started with 12 weeks of behavioral weight-loss treatment, followed by 36 weeks of Weight Watchers. All programs lasted a total of 48 weeks. People in all three groups lost weight, but on average, Weight Watchers dieters lost a little more than 13 pounds, compared with a little less than 12 pounds for those in the professionally led group, and nearly 8 pounds for those in the combination group.

Does it have cardiovascular benefits?

Weight Watchers appears to promote heart health.

  • In a randomized trial, researchers compared the Atkins, Ornish, Weight Watchers, and Zone diets for heart-disease risk reduction. After one year, Weight Watchers participants reduced their ratio of LDL cholesterol to HDL cholesterol by about 10 percent, down from a borderline-high baseline of 142/47 mg/dL. That’s important, since a high ratio of those two forms of cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease, according to the study, which was published in 2005 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. However, Weight Watchers didn’t outperform the other diets; all reduced the ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol by about 10 percent.
  • Additional research supports Weight Watchers’ cholesterol-lowering effect. In a 2009 study published in Public Health Nutrition, researchers found that bad LDL cholesterol dropped significantly after six months. And so did triglycerides, which is important, since high triglycerides can also increase the chance of developing heart disease.

Can it prevent or control diabetes?

No good evidence suggests Weight Watchers accomplishes either, but by promoting weight loss, the program should help. If you’re overweight, losing just 5 to 10 percent of your current weight can help stave off some diseases, among them diabetes.

Prevention: No studies specifically address this. However, diabetes experts emphasize that weight gain from excessive caloric intake, regardless of where those calories come from, increases the risk of insulin resistance, in which the body does not respond as it should to the hormone; it is a frequent precursor to type 2 diabetes. Losing weight and keeping it off, whatever the diet, will almost certainly reduce your risk of developing the chronic disease.

Control: According to the British Medical Journal study cited in the above weight loss section, only dieters following Weight Watchers achieved a significantly lower fasting blood glucose level after six months. Participants did not have diabetes, but high fasting glucose levels can predict whether someone will develop the disease.

Are there health risks?

No indications of serious risks or side effects have surfaced.

But keep in mind Weight Watchers isn’t safe for everyone:

  • Children under 10 aren’t allowed to sign up, and those under 17 need written permission from a doctor before joining. That’s because young people are still growing and weight-loss diets often aren’t appropriate.
  • Pregnant women can’t participate, either, since they need all the nutrients they can get. For them, low-calorie diets are inappropriate.

How well does it conform to accepted dietary guidelines?

Fat. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that 20 to 30 percent of daily calories come from fat. Weight Watchers is within that range.

Protein. It’s within the acceptable range for protein consumption.

Carbohydrates. It’s within the acceptable range for carb consumption.

Salt. The majority of Americans eat too much salt. If you adhere to the diet, and get the recommended daily servings of fruits, vegetables, and dairy, while skipping processed food, Weight Watchers says you’ll be in line with the government’s suggested sodium cap of 2,300 milligrams a day, or 1,500 mg. daily if you’re 51 or older, African-American, or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. Of course, exactly how much salt you consume depends on which foods you select.

Other key nutrients. The 2010 dietary guidelines call these “nutrients of concern” because many Americans get too little of one or more of them:

  • Fiber. Most Americans need about 20 to 35 grams of fiber a day. While Weight Watchers dieters shape their own menus, company materials offer guidance on how to reach a healthy amount. For example, an orange, which has 3 grams of fiber, is better than a glass of orange juice, which has less than half a gram.
  • Potassium. A sufficient amount of this important nutrient, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, counters salt's ability to raise blood pressure, decreases bone loss, and reduces the risk of kidney disease. It's not easy to get the recommended daily 4,700 mg. from food. (Bananas are high in potassium, yet you'd have to eat 11 a day.) Most Americans take in far too little. Exactly how much you get on Weight Watchers depends on what you choose to eat. But the company recommends adding “potassium powerhouses” to your meals, such as layering avocado on sandwiches, adding dried apricots to rice salads, or blending orange juice into smoothies.
  • Calcium. It’s essential not only to build and maintain bones but to make blood vessels and muscles function properly. Many Americans don’t get enough. Women and anyone older than 50 should try especially hard to meet the government’s recommendation of 1,000 mg. to 1,300 mg. per day. How much you get on Weight Watchers will vary depending on your food choices, but you should be able to meet the goal with low-fat dairy products and calcium-fortified juices and cereals.
  • Vitamin B-12. Adults should shoot for 2.4 micrograms per day of this nutrient, which helps make DNA. How much you get on Weight Watchers depends on your meals, but meeting the standard is doable. Make sure your grocery additions include yogurt, which is a good source of the vitamin.
  • Vitamin D. Adults who don’t get enough sunlight need to meet the government’s 15- microgram recommendation with food or a supplement to lower the risk of bone fractures. You’ll get enough on Weight Watchers. After you’ve weaned yourself off the program, eating just 3 ounces of sockeye salmon, which packs about 20 micrograms of vitamin D, will satisfy the daily requirement.

Supplement recommended? Yes. Weight Watchers suggests taking a daily multivitamin to ensure you’re getting enough calcium, zinc, magnesium, iron, vitamin B-12, and other important nutrients. A 2008 study in the Nutrition Journal that pitted Weight Watchers against Slim-Fast, Eat Yourself Slim, and a variation of Atkins, found that after two months, Weight Watchers dieters experienced declines in recommended daily intake of riboflavin, niacin, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc, though they didn’t necessarily dip below recommended levels. Despite the drop, the researchers said intake remained above the suggested level for most nutrients.

How easy is it to follow?

You won’t go hungry—daily points are always high enough to allow for three meals a day, plus at least two snacks. Treating yourself is encouraged, and popular food choices include pasta, black bean soup, and filet mignon. Sandwiches are topped with avocado or cheese, and fat-free ice cream is a recommended dessert.

In the 2006 British Medical Journal study mentioned above, researchers found that 20 of 33 overweight or obese adults on Weight Watchers were still participating a year later. Programs like Weight Watchers that offer emotional support and group meetings lead to higher compliance than a do-it-yourself diet, according to the findings.

Convenience:

Whether you’re online or on the street, Weight Watchers makes it easy to check the points value of what you’re eating. There’s a pocket guide, pocket calculator, and even a PointsPlus database iPhone application. Alcohol is limited. Company products and online resources may be helpful.

Recipes. Weight Watchers members can access thousands of free recipes on the company’s website, complete with serving size, preparation and cooking time, difficulty level, and user reviews. Each is stamped with its PointsPlus value, eliminating guesswork.

Eating out. Restaurant dining is doable. Just grab the Weight Watchers Dining Out Companion, which serves up the nutritional low-down on meals at hundreds of restaurants, and includes tips on making healthy restaurant substitutions. Since no foods are banned or required, you’ll have an easier time at restaurants than will folks on more inflexible diets.

Alcohol. Moderation is key. If you do choose to indulge, the company’s beer and cocktail “cheat sheets” can help you make the smartest choices. Most 12-ounce beers cost 5 points, so knocking back a couple glasses means you’ll have fewer points to spend on food. (All dieters get at least 29 daily PointsPlus, and the average is about 31 to 33 points per day.)

Time-savers. If you’re not up for cooking, head to the grocery store. You can purchase packaged Weight Watchers products ranging from breakfast sandwiches and bagels, to mini cheeseburgers and ice cream treats. Cost varies based on where you live and where you’re shopping.

Extras. Weight Watchers members can access weight-tracking tools, fitness tips, workout video demonstrations, and restaurant guides on the company’s website.

Fullness:

Nutrition experts emphasize the importance of satiety, the satisfied feeling that you’ve had enough. Hunger shouldn’t be a problem on Weight Watchers, since the program emphasizes fiber-packed Power Foods, which will keep you feeling fuller, longer. (Think whole-grain bread and spelt pasta.) Plus, you’re allowed a weekly cushion of 49 extra points on top of your individualized target, so if you’re feeling particularly ravenous one day, you have some leeway to eat more than usual.

Taste:

No foods are off-limits—if you’re drooling for a double-cheese pizza, go for it. Weight Watchers simply helps you control portions and tweak your favorite recipes so your meals are as healthy as possible. And you’re bound to find a company-endorsed recipe that will please your palate: Philly cheese steaks, sautéed shrimp, and homemade sugar cookies are all popular. Plus, packaged products include favorites like peanut- butter- cup candies, bagels, three-cheese ravioli, and macaroni.

How much does it cost?

Cost varies, depending on whether you choose to attend weekly in-person meetings or use the online tools only. A monthly pass to unlimited in-person meetings is $39.95, which also includes access to eTools. Or you can pay as you go; meetings are $12 to $15 per week, with a one-time $20 registration fee. To follow online only, a 3-month plan is $65. None of the costs include food.

Does the diet allow for restrictions and preferences?

Most people will be able to customize Weight Watchers to their needs—choose your preference for more information.

Weight Watchers offers ample vegetarian and vegan-friendly recipes. Try vegan chocolate chip cookies, for example, or vegan lemon-poppy pound cake (both are egg-free).

Lots of recipes. Options range from apricot-glazed turkey and sweet potatoes to honey-mustard roasted salmon.

Weight Watchers materials suggest ways to lower salt intake. The company warns that processed foods, salad dressing, canned soup, and dill pickles can all pack lots of sodium. If you need extra guidance, their list of low-salt products—like Heinz No-Salt Tomato Ketchup and Low-Sodium V8—is helpful.

Lots of recipes.

Weight Watchers does not offer specially designated halal recipes, but the company says some of its meals qualify. It’s up to dieters to sift through and decide what’s allowed.

What is the role of exercise?

Exercise is encouraged, and Weight Watchers has assigned a PointsPlus value to a number of activities, like swimming, dancing, and cleaning, that are listed in an online database. These count as extra food points, which allows for an occasional splurge. If you do an activity three or four times a week, for example, you can “spend” your extra points on a special restaurant dinner or second slice of pizza, plus a beer. Weight Watchers recommends using everyday activities to get more active. You get points for spending a night on the town dancing or even doing chores, like an hour of laundry.


Last updated by Angela Haupt | December 13, 2013

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