Monday, July 29, 2013

Part 5: What About the Weight Watchers Diet?

The Weight Watchers diet is a unique approach to weight-loss. They do manufacture and sell pre-packaged food items (in addition to partnering with some restaurant chains that offer Weight Watchers menu items), but their main focus is on the community support (in person and/or online) and proprietary system of calculating the "point value" of various foods. Depending on the individual metrics of the consumer, an upper limit of points per day is assigned. The interesting part about Weight Watchers is that there are "no forbidden foods," but with their new (as of 2010) Points Plus system, they assign a higher point value to foods they deem as a poorer choice and a lower point value to better choices of food (which they view as foods high in protein and fiber "to fill you up").

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Summary of Diet Recommendations:
With the current Weight Watchers plan, all fruits and "non-starchy" vegetables are zero points, meaning that you can eat unlimited quantities each day. They encourage 3 meals plus snacks to be consumed per day within your individual point allotment, but they leave it up to the consumer to "spend" their points however they please. Consumers are encouraged by the new Points Plus value system to choose more "good" foods throughout the day than a few "bad" foods. In other words, it's the idea that you get to eat a larger quantity of food per day if you choose "healthier" foods than if you choose "unhealthier" foods. The consumer can enter the foods they consume into the online points calculator to determine the value and keep track of their daily consumption. When you sign up, you provide your age, gender, weight, and height. They then assign you a daily points allotment, which will be at least 1,200 calories per day.

What's Good?
The community support aspect is a wonderful feature of this diet. Everyone needs support. I wish we had a local support group of people who eat the way we do so that we would all be encouraged and help one another. Sigh...maybe some day!

I like how the diet is built around encouraging healthy food choices by assigning lower point values to healthier foods. They correctly assign higher point values ("costs" more to consume) to foods high in fat and simple carbs (sugar), but as I will explain shortly, the calculations are flawed and misleading.

Another good thing about this diet is that, unlike the Nutrisystem diet, this diet can be continued for life if the consumer felt so inclined. There are point calculators online that could be used after canceling the paid membership. This ability to calculate Weight Watchers points after canceling membership may help reduce the yo-yo-ing effect that South Beach and Nutrisystem would likely cause.

What's Bad?
First, the way the point values are assigned to various foods is extremely flawed. Weight Watchers claims that their food points assignments are based on the latest scientific research about what's healthy and not healthy, but when you plug in actual foods and calculate a point value, you will quickly see that this is not true -- or at least they are not basing their calculation formula on sound scientific research. They mislead you into thinking that "high protein" foods will help you feel full - this is incorrect, especially if from an animal source. Protein alone does nothing to create a sense of fullness, but fiber does create a lasting and satisfying sense of fullness. Remember from Part 2: What About the Atkins Diet?, animal foods contain ZERO fiber.

Yes, you will eventually get full eating zero-fiber meat, but you will consume more to reach satiety than you would if you ate fiber-rich foods. This flawed points system could cause confusion and mislead the consumer into thinking that just because one food has a low point value, it must therefore be healthy. Likewise, I think it would only be human nature to try to avoid foods with higher point values because you want to consume more food than less each day. Here's an example of the flawed points assignments using this calculator:

Food: 1/2 cup dry whole grain rolled oats
Fat (g): 3
Carbs (g): 27
Protein (g): 5
Fiber (g): 4
Weight Watchers Points Plus Assignment = 4

My Comments: Oats are a whole grain. They are such a healthy food choice! If I am not able to have my Super Smoothie for breakfast, oatmeal is my next choice for breakfast (although, the very last thing I add to my Super Smoothie is to stir in dry oats because I am obsessed about oats!) When we cruised to Alaska, oatmeal was my breakfast every day. It's easy to get almost anywhere, cheap, delicious, fills you up, and lowers your cholesterol. In my opinion, 4 points seems high for such a healthy food choice.

Food: 1 large russet potato
Fat (g): 0
Carbs (g): 64
Protein (g): 8
Fiber (g): 7
Weight Watchers Points Plus Assignment = 7

My Comments: Are you freakin' kidding me?! 7 points?!?! The potato is also a wonderfully healthy food choice. It has NO fat, is high in fiber and protein and full of complex carbs to give you lots of energy. It is seriously one of the best food choices you could make. They should really assign the potato ZERO points like vegetables and fruit to encourage more people to eat potatoes. The problem is that people often add things to potatoes that are terrible for you, like cheese, butter, sour cream, and bacon bits. But the potato itself is so good for you. We regularly eat a baked potato topped with oil-free salsa and nutritional yeast - a delicious and filling lunch or dinner with very little effort. Heck, you can even buy a plain baked potato at Wendy's!

Food: 1 cup skim milk
Fat (g): 0
Carbs (g): 12
Protein (g): 8
Fiber (g): 0
Weight Watchers Points Plus Assignment = 2

My Comments: Do you SEE my point yet?! Skim milk - chock-full of cancer-growing casein, acid-loading and bone withering animal protein, artery-clogging cholesterol, estrogen, and antibiotics is assigned only 2 Weight Watchers points. Outrageous! It should be assigned a point value of 200, that way, if you consume a cup of skim milk, you're not allowed to eat for the rest of the week. (I'm not really that sadistic, but seriously Weight Watchers folks - get up to speed on the preponderance of the scientific evidence that dairy is terrible for people; don't bury your head in the sand or make false claims that's it's okay to consume. Their claim that "there's no strong research" to support the ill effects of consuming dairy is just plain WRONG! This Weight Watchers article contains terrible, terrible advice.)

Food: 1 cup roasted chicken breast
Fat (g): 5
Carbs (g): 0
Protein (g): 43
Fiber (g): 0
Weight Watchers Points Plus Assignment = 5

My Comments: I find it sad that Weight Watchers assigned less points to chicken than to the potato. They clearly and foolishly believe in the whole "lean meats are healthy" myth. There is no such thing as lean meat. All meat contains cholesterol, fat, and puts an acid load on your body due to the high animal protein content. Furthermore, meat offers ZERO carbs for energy and ZERO fiber to help you feel full.

Weight Watchers uses this formula to calculate the Points Plus value of foods. (Note that when I plugged in the above examples, I got the same point values for everything except the potato...for the discriminated potato, I calculated 8 points using the precise formula!) As you can see from the formula, Weight Watchers penalizes fat content the most. But then it penalizes carbohydrates more than protein. Fiber content is the least penalized. This prioritization explains why the chicken breast received a lower point value than the potato. Remember that excessive amounts of protein, especially from animals sources (meat, dairy, eggs, fish), leads to an increased acid load on the body and strain on the kidneys and liver. Continuing this over consumption of protein over time will lead to decreased bone health, increased cholesterol, fat, and increased chances of other chronic illnesses.

The "Improved" Weight Watchers Algorithm
Weight Watchers should instead penalize too much protein by increasing the multiple from 16 to something like 25 and decreasing the carbohydrates multiple from 19 to 5 (make it the same as fiber). This would give the potato a point value of 3, oats 2, and not allow any dairy (kick the skim milk to the curb). Chicken would get 7 points and 1 Tbsp of olive oil would get 4 points...might as well kick them to the curb also! I hope I have shown you how ludicrous this points system is.

Weight Watcher's idea of "healthy" food choices are: whole grains (excellent!), lean meats (hazardous!), low-fat dairy (dangerous!), and unlimited fruits (excellent, though you shouldn't go overboard with this by consuming nothing but fruit!) and non-starchy vegetables (excellent, but starch is not the enemy!)

Fun Facts about Starch
What is Starch?
Starch is a complex carbohydrate.
All carbohydrates are forms of sugar.
Starch is essentially long chains of bonded sugar molecules (glucose).

Benefits of Starch
No cholesterol
Enduring energy
Satiety (feeling of fullness)
Very little fat (1-8% of calories)
Humans are Designed to Eat Starch
Amylase is the enzyme that breaks down starch into sugar.
Humans have 6-8 times more salivary amylase than other primates.

Starch (Carbohydrates) Don't Make You Fat; Fat Does
A 2001 study showed that women (both overweight and lean)
who were overfed simple sugars by 50% of their normal daily food intake
only produced 4 grams of fat. At 4 grams of fat gained per day, it would
take 4 months of this type of overeating to gain 1 pound! So it is virtually
impossible to gain weight even while overeating carbohydrates (sugars).
Examples of Starchy Foods
Grains: wheat, rice, corn, oats, millet, barley
Legumes: beans, peas, lentils
 Starchy Vegetables: carrots, potatoes, winter squashes, artichokes 

"Starchy" vegetables are not encouraged as profusely as "non-starchy" vegetables. This is why the potato was assigned such a high point value. But as you can see above, starches and starchy vegetables are just as crucial to a health-promoting diet as non-starchy vegetables.

Although I see why Weight Watchers says "no forbidden foods," which probably helps the consumer feel less micro-managed, I do not see the point of allowing downright unhealthy foods. This again brings up the flawed opinions of Weight Watchers experts who base their decisions on the "latest science". The preponderance of the scientific evidence reveals that dairy, even in small amounts, is harmful to humans. This is not new information, yet popular fad diets shy away from recommending such "radical" dietary changes.

Weight Watchers is yet another example of a calorie restricted diet. I entered my personal information into this Weight Watchers assessment and I would be allowed to have 20 points per day, plus 35 bonus points to spend however I want during the week. 20! That would go by so quickly based on the Weight Watchers current points system, and would likely leave me feeling miserable at dinner after already spending my day's points and being forced to eat a tiny portion. Remember me telling you that calorie restriction only leads to short-term weight-loss and misery? I hated restricting my portion sizes and counting/limiting calories. Miserable!

In the past, I used to try to keep up with Livestrong's My Daily Plate to track all my foods. That was a free service and I had enough trouble as it was remembering to enter everything. How much more of a hassle would it be to enter foods into Weight Watchers and pay money for it? I've said it before and I'll say it again, I would much rather eat delicious, filling, fiber and nutrient rich foods to my satisfaction and lose weight effortlessly than worry and stress about points, calories, portion size, etc. If you're willing to invest all that time and energy into tracking those things, why not redirect those efforts towards making truly healthy food choices (that actually work in the long-term) and preparing those foods at home? 

Bottom Line:
Though Weight Watchers offers the benefit of community support and encouragement, their Points Plus assessment of which foods are healthy versus less healthy is seriously flawed and could mislead the consumer into thinking that certain foods (dairy, meat) are better choices than others (potatoes). At the end of the day, why not invest the time, money, energy, and self-discipline into a diet that will benefit your health in the long-run, help you lose weight and keep it off, and does not require calorie or portion restriction? Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Next -- Part 6: What About the Vegetarian Diet? 
Previous -- Part 4: What About the Nutrisystem Diet?
Introduction to the 10-Part Series

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