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Weight Watchers’ PointsPlus Reconfigures Points System
By Lori Zanteson

Fueled by scientific innovation and a fresh new focus, Weight Watchers’ PointsPlus program, unveiled worldwide last November, is out to change the way people view calories. The emphasis of the updated program has shifted from simplistic calorie counting to encouraging members toward choices that will help them lose weight as well as make them healthier.

In the 13 years since the Points program was introduced, a lot has happened in the world of food and nutrition research. Over the last four years, Weight Watchers has been working to update its approach to healthy weight loss based on the latest scientific findings that food calories are not the same.  While PointsPlus provides a major change in its methodology, it maintains its four-pillar approach to weight loss.

The new plan still requires daily counting, but the entire counting system has changed. Points are based on food values but are no longer configured calorie for calorie. Unlike the original counting system, PointsPlus does not treat all calories equally. It considers the way a food’s key nutrients work for weight loss and ties its conversion and satiety into its point value.

The conversion cost is based on the work the body does to change macronutrients into energy. Scientists have found that the body works harder to use protein and fiber than it does to use carbohydrates and fat, calories from which are more easily stored by the body. In addition, higher protein and fiber translate into a higher satiety value, giving a more satisfying feeling of fullness. The result is a system in which the same calories don’t matter as much, awarding fewer points to a high-protein breakfast of egg, ham, and whole wheat toast than a carbohydrate- and fat-laden croissant.

All of the foods in the Weight Watchers database have been categorized according to their energy density. Designated power foods top the list to eliminate the guesswork from making healthful food choices. “We’ve done the work for you to help people select the healthiest version of foods,” says Stephanie Rost, MS, RD, Weight Watchers corporate program development director. The program is designed to nudge members toward healthful foods and to reduce intake of those with added sugar and solid fats. The new lesson is that foods that are best for you are not necessarily the lowest in calories.

Christine M. Palumbo, MBA, RD, of suburban Chicago, is a longtime supporter of the original Points plan and is thrilled with PointsPlus, which reflects recommendations in protein and fiber in relation to satiety. “The old plan was less based on nutrition than on calories. Now highly nutritious foods and less processed foods are encouraged and rewarded with points. The weight loss is associated with a healthier diet.”

Probably the biggest change to the new plan is the zero point value for fruits and most vegetables. “More than 75% of adults are falling short of the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables,” explains Rost. “Not counting them makes them more enticing. It’s helping people shift their behavior.”

This emphasis on fruits and vegetables and the shift away from processed foods makes PointsPlus “more like a lifestyle than a diet,” according to Ruth Frechman, MA, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. In the old plan, she says, “A point was a point, so you could get around eating healthy.” Though Frechman isn’t a fan of counting points instead of listening to hunger cues and eating healthfully, she recognizes that some people need structure and Weight Watchers offers support, including online support, so people don’t have to undertake it alone.

Rost explains the old and the new counting methodology as almost like the metric and the standard system of measurement. “It requires more work to relearn the points, but at the same time, it helps to reenergize everybody’s efforts and focus. We’re hearing a positive buzz about the way it’s been able to change people’s behavior, incentivizing them. It’s amazing how it’s having a ripple effect. Not only are they choosing the banana over the 100-kcal bag of chips, but it’s making it easier for them to make healthy choices for dinner,” she says.

Apparently the new PointsPlus program wasn’t immediately embraced, according to Palumbo, who has heard that it was not initially well received by Weight Watchers members. She attributes that to the fact that people simply resist change, even when it’s a good change, and predicts that “once it’s past the learning curve, everybody will be back to business as usual.”

Despite rumor that PointsPlus wasn’t initially well received by members, Rost assures that it has been well embraced by members as well as nonmembers. “In fact,” she says, “meeting rooms were packed upon launch Thanksgiving weekend, which usually is not the case—people start thinking weight loss postholidays. And attendance overall has been up ever since the new program was introduced.”

The new plan has been in effect for more than a year in continental Europe and has been beta tested by thousands of people across the United States this past year. Results have shown it to deliver significant weight loss, improve risk factors for cardiovascular disease by reducing LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and improve eating behaviors linked with long-term weight loss and hedonistic hunger.

— Lori Zanteson is a food and health writer in southern California.