There are a seemingly endless number of weight-loss programs out there, from Jenny Craig and Nutrisystem to the South Beach Diet and The Zone. But the grandaddy of them all — Weight Watchers — has been helping people drop pounds for more than 50 years.
This points-driven program teaches you to make healthy food choices and control calories for weight loss while still allowing you to pick what you like to eat. It was named both the best weight-loss diet and the No. 1 commercial diet plan for 2019 by U.S. News & World Report. But that doesn't mean it's right for everyone.
Check out our guide to determine if Weight Watchers is the best investment for you. But first, make sure to check in with your doctor before making any significant changes to your diet.
What Is Weight Watchers, Exactly?
Founded in 1963, Weight Watchers is a weight-loss program that assigns points to individual foods according to their nutritional value. When you join, your personal daily points "budget" is calculated based on your current weight, height, age, gender and weight-loss goal.
While the basics haven't changed much, Weight Watchers has incorporated scientific research to update parts of its program over the years. One such shift occurred in December 2015, when the plan changed from PointsPlus to SmartPoints (the PointsPlus system used protein and fiber to calculate points, while SmartPoints takes calories, protein, saturated fat and sugar into consideration).
In 2017, Weight Watchers introduced the WW Freestyle Program, with an expanded list of over 200 zero-point foods that members don't have to track or measure. And last year, Weight Watchers rebranded, installing a new name and logo, WW, to signify a shift toward general wellness (more exercise, mindfulness and positivity, to be specific) and away from an exclusive focus on weight loss.
Does It Work — and How Much Weight Will I Lose?
Weight Watchers advocates a slow-and-steady weight-loss approach by encouraging portion control, informed food choices and physical activity. The plan also aims to boost participants' motivation by offering online support, 24/7 chat groups, in-person meetings and one-on-one sessions with weight-loss counselors.
One of the most important components of the program is the tracking of food intake, says Lara Field, RDN, a Chicago-based registered dietitian and the owner/founder of FEED Nutrition Consulting. "When dieters have to report their consumption, typically they are more thoughtful about what they are eating each day," she says.
Research around Weight Watchers' efficacy is vast and varied, but for the most part, recent studies have concluded that the program is generally successful in helping people lose weight. A December 2013 study in the American Journal of Medicine, for example, noted that the 147 people assigned to the Weight Watchers model of behavioral counseling and one-on-one meetings achieved greater weight loss than those who were enrolled in self-help programs. And a review of 39 studies published in April 2015 in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that those who stuck to the Weight Watchers plan were 2.6 percent more likely to drop pounds than those who tried weight-loss counseling alone.
When it comes to just how much weight you're apt to lose on the plan, that depends on the effort you put in (think: how closely you stick to your points goal and how much exercise you incorporate), how long you're on the program and your ultimate weight-loss goal.
Field says participants who follow the program closely are likely to lose 1 to 2 pounds per week, which is a healthy rate of weight loss. "Any more than that may be too difficult for the body to maintain and the dieter may regain it," she explains. Plus, according to the Mayo Clinic, you're more likely to shed fat at this pace than water weight or lean muscle mass.
Is It Expensive?
The price of Weight Watchers depends on which subscription plan you choose, and it varies slightly by location.
New members choose from one of three subscriptions, which each come with access to various parts of the program. For about $20 a month, you'll get the digital plan, with access to an app, website and 24/7 online chat help. For $45 or so per month, you'll get weigh-ins and weekly meetings, too, where you can learn about nutrition and exercise, and chart your progress. And for about $55 monthly, you get all of the above, plus the coaching plan, which includes unlimited calls and messages with your personal coach.
Typically the program charges a $20 "starter fee," too, but this is often waived through promotions.
Keep in mind that this does not include the cost of food. Unlike some other weight-loss programs, Weight Watchers does not include pre-packaged meals, so participants are responsible for buying their own.
The Pros of Weight Watchers
It's easy to follow. Each food is assigned a certain number of points based on its nutritional value, and participants are allotted a certain number of points for each day. An apple, for example, has zero points, a small serving of chicken is 2 points and a portion of avocado is 3 points.
It's not too restrictive. Field praises the program for its balanced approach to weight-loss nutrition, as it encourages participants to consume more fruits, veggies and lean protein and less sugar and unhealthy fats. No foods are forbidden on the plan, either, which can make it easier to follow while enjoying normal social activities like going out to dinner or attending a barbecue.
Indeed, flexibility is a hallmark of WW, since points can be shifted from one day to the next. If you know, for example, that you'll be eating birthday cake and ice cream in a few days, you can save up some of the points from your allotted "budget" so you're able to indulge and still stay on track.
You're part of a community. Weight Watchers allows you to tap into a large community of like-minded folks who all want to drop weight together — and, as they say, there's power in numbers. Members have access to a website, chat groups, meetings and more, which means they don't have to go it alone, and that feeling of support often leads to successful weight loss, Field says.
It's educational. "Weight Watchers helps dieters understand that some foods are more energy-dense, by assigning them a higher point value, and that we should be mindful of portions," says Field. This awareness about food teaches members to recognize what's healthy and what's not, and how much they should really be eating each day — lessons that they can take with them after they've finished the program.
Read more: Why Portion Control Works — and How to Get It Right
The Potential Cons of Weight Watchers
Counting isn't for everyone. "Despite the recent re-branding, Weight Watchers is still a diet with rules, restrictions and counting," notes Alissa Rumsey, RD, the New York City-based dietitian and owner behind Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness. Constantly counting and logging points may lead some to food preoccupation and obsession, she says.
It's an investment. Being able to attend meetings means springing for the higher-priced plan, which means you're shelling out cash and spending time at weigh-ins (expect to meet for about 45 minutes each week). And some may spend even more on the program's branded food line.
It may encourage you to label foods. Even though foods aren't designated as "good" or "bad," the points system may make some people think in terms of these categories — and this can lead to an all-or-nothing mindset, notes Rumsey. "Many who eat a food that's 'bad' end up feeling badly, and they may ultimately quit the diet," she says.
There's a lot of freedom. Yup, the flexibility of the program cuts both ways. You can eat what you want as long as you stick to your daily allotted points, but this leeway may be too tempting for some, who might pick less-than-healthy options at some meals and still meet their points goal.
A Typical Day of Weight Watchers Meals
Weight Watchers is rather customizable as long as you stay within your suggested points value, according to Field. "That said, I would advise those on this plan to focus on fiber sources to encourage fullness throughout the day," she adds.
Good sources of fiber include whole grains (oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice) and vegetables such as hearty greens, bell pepper and asparagus.
Here's an easy weekday menu, which includes three meals, two snacks and a dessert that total 25 points. Keep in mind that the number of points a person is encouraged to aim for ranges from around 23 for a shorter, more sedentary person to about 29 for a taller, more active individual.
- Breakfast sandwich with 2 slices of reduced-fat bacon, 2 eggs and 1 slice of low-fat American cheese on a slider-sized roll (5 points)
- 1/2 a medium grapefruit (0 points)
- Coffee or tea, black or with a non-calorie sweetener
- 1 cup of red seedless grapes (0 points)
- 10 unsalted almonds (2 points)
- 2 ounces low-fat cheddar cheese (2 points)
- Salad with 1 cup baby arugula; 1 cup Boston lettuce; two small, sliced radishes; half a Persian mini cucumber; 3 ounces cooked, boneless and skinless chicken breast; 3/4 cup blueberries; 1 1/2 tablespoons toasted walnuts; and 1 1/2 tablespoons creamy ranch salad dressing (5 points)
- One clementine (0 points)
Dip made by blending together 1/2 cup baby spinach; 1/4 cup plan, fat-free Greek yogurt; 1/4 cup basil; 1 small scallion; 2 teaspoons Parmesan cheese; and salt and pepper to taste. Serve with 1 tablespoon diced tomatoes and 6 whole-wheat pita chips (3 points)
- 4 ounces lean flank steak, seasoned with herbs; 1/2 cup canned cannellini beans, heated; and 4 medium stalks roasted baby broccoli, all seasoned to taste with 1 teaspoon olive oil and herbs of choice (4 points)
- 1 vanilla pizzelle cookie topped with 2 teaspoons mini chocolate chips and 10 mini marshmallows, broiled until chocolate is melted and marshmallows are lightly toasted (4 points)
Is There Anyone Who Shouldn't Try Weight Watchers?
Anyone who needs to lose weight to be within a healthy body mass index or BMI is eligible for a weight-loss plan such as Weight Watchers. But there are some categories of people who should use caution with this program. "Those with binge-eating behaviors may find this plan difficult," says Field. And if you need to follow a very strict eating plan for health reasons, the freedom of Weight Watchers may make it hard to adhere to your regimen.
- Weight Watchers: "About Us"
- Weight Watchers: "Everything You Need To Know About SmartPoints"
- Weight Watchers: "Food List"
- Weight Watchers: "Weight Watchers Reimagined"
- American Journal of Medicine: "A Randomized Controlled Trial of a Community-based Behavioral Counseling Program"
- Annals of Internal Medicine: "Efficacy of commercial weight loss programs: an updated systematic review"
- Weight Watchers: "Get a totally customized game plan"
- Weight Watchers: "What to Eat on WW: Easy Weekday Menu"
- Mayo Clinic: "Why do doctors recommend a slow rate of weight loss? What's wrong with fast weight loss?"