Watching More Than Just Weight?: WW Gets an Update
By Hadley Turner
Weight Watchers is now WW—'Wellness that Works.' Here's a rundown of what that means and what RDs think about it.
By now, it's been widely publicized that the company formerly known as Weight Watchers has been renamed WW, which stands for Wellness that Works. The company, which has been active in the weight loss space since the early '60s, has forgone its exclusive focus on weight loss and moved toward a more holistic definition of wellness, incorporating mindfulness practices among changes to its approach to food and physical activity. Today's Dietitian dives into the details of WW's new approach and gets feedback from weight management and intuitive eating experts on what it might mean for clients.
'Beyond the Scale'
Since December 2015, WW has been working to implement changes to its program and retrain staff on new tactics for wellness and weight loss. The official name change came at the beginning of October 2018 as part of what the company referred to as its "evolution to focus on overall health and wellness" in a press release published in late September.
In an October webinar on the company's changes, Gary Foster, PhD, chief science officer at WW, explained that the days of consumers going to extreme lengths to lose weight are over. Consumers are thinking "beyond the scale" and focusing on a holistic approach to wellness, including fitness for fitness' sake and fostering a positive mindset, he said. The changes, according to Foster, are about "delivering something beyond weight loss." Essentially, he said, WW can be a weight loss program for those who choose to use it that way, but it's open to all looking to lead a more healthful lifestyle.
Following is a summary of the major updates to WW:
• WW Freestyle: WW always has had a point system for foods, but WW Freestyle is a revamped version of this system. WW Freestyle debuted in late 2017, but it's essential to understanding WW's new emphasis on wellness. According to Foster, the points (called SmartPoints) that different foods are worth used to be based almost solely on calories—the more calories a food contained, the more points it was worth. With WW Freestyle, foods that the company deems to have a "low risk of overconsumption" and align with dietary recommendations such as the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are assigned zero points. "ZeroPoint" foods include fruits and vegetables as well as staples such as skinless chicken breast, eggs, corn, fish and seafood, and pulses.
Points assigned to other foods are based on added sugars, saturated fat, and protein content, instead of being determined solely by calories. Users have a points "budget" for each day and each week.
• WellnessWins: This program rewards users for behaviors such as tracking their meals, physical activity, and weight, as well as attending WW's Wellness Workshops (previously called meetings). Members can redeem their "Wins" for fitness and self-care items (eg, water bottles, travel shoe bags, books, workout socks, a yoga mat) and fitness and wellness service and app memberships, such as a one-month membership to ClassPass, an app that gives members access to local fitness classes at a variety of gyms and studios.
• Partnership with Headspace app: WW has collaborated with meditation and mindfulness app Headspace to improve mindset, which Foster said encourages healthful behaviors. "How you think about things changes what you do. So if you can change what you think, you can change what you do," he said in the webinar. Wellness Workshops also will focus at least one-half of their content on what WW refers to as "Mindset" topics. In the future, according to Foster, users may be able to earn WellnessWins for using Headspace.
• Individualized fitness recommendations: According to a press release, the WW app will now take users' height, weight, sex, and age into account when suggesting exercises to prescribe the most effective activities. It also assigns more "FitPoints" to exercises that research has shown to be especially beneficial, such as strength training and high-intensity exercise.
• Connect Groups: Consumers can connect with other users on the WW app based on a variety of factors, including food and dietary preferences/restrictions (eg, gluten-free, vegan, foodies), life stages (eg, college students, new moms), and hobbies (eg, hiking, traveling).
• "Healthy habits" focus: In addition to a general greater emphasis on holistic wellness, consumers now can join WW without setting a weight loss goal and instead choose to focus on fostering more healthful habits. Furthermore, at Wellness Workshops, Wellness Coaches ask users more about their behaviors that week vs their outcomes (eg, weight).
In a press release announcing the changes, WW President and CEO Mindy Grossman said, "We are becoming the world's partner in wellness. No matter what your goal is—to lose weight, eat healthier, move more, develop a positive mindset, or all of the above—we will deliver science-based solutions that fit into people's lives."
The RDs TD speaks with express a range of views with both pros and cons of the new WW model and comment on WW's use of mindfulness training, the updated SmartPoints system for foods, and WW's general shift toward holistic wellness.
Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, CHWC, FAND, Virginia-based author of Prediabetes: A Complete Guide, is glad to see WW incorporate mindfulness training. "It seems that now more emphasis is put on behavior change," she says. "This is what I find my own clients struggle with. They need some help with food choices, but they tend to need a lot of help with making changes stick."
On the other hand, Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD, a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor and Seattle-based owner of Nutrition By Carrie, questions the use of mindful eating for the purposes of weight loss. "While mindfulness can help us appreciate our food more and recognize our internal hunger and fullness cues, it's not a ticket to weight loss," she says. Dennett explains that weight loss "isn't aligned with the true spirit of mindfulness."
Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, owner of Nutrition Starring YOU in New Jersey and a private practice RD specializing in weight management, agrees that, in spite of WW's marketing, their program "definitely isn't [Health at Every Size] or intuitive eating focused," though she doesn't necessarily take issue with that fact, arguing that some people do need to focus on some degree of dietary restriction to eat more healthfully. She doesn't believe mindful/intuitive eating work for everyone. But, she says, the fact that "you're still weighing yourself and still counting points (even if there are foods that are zero points)" means that "overall, we're still looking at calorie management at the end of the day."
While WW purports its new point system to be more than simply calorie management, the RDs interviewed still find it reductive. Weisenberger sees it as a distraction from true healthful eating. "I've known a lot of people involved in the old program who've spent too much energy looking to get the most food for the least points," she says. "Putting points on foods might send the message that some foods are more or less valuable and that ZeroPoint foods like beans, fish, and chicken can be eaten in unlimited amounts. I just don't think a point system is the best way to learn about healthful eating."
Dennett also objects to the points system. "The point system continues to paint foods as good or bad by giving some foods more points than others, even at the same calorie level," she says, and believes this can lead to disordered eating in some. "I've had numerous clients who, as former Weight Watchers members, ate excessive amounts of fruit just to feel full—and a few of them didn't even particularly like fruit."
In fact, Dennett thinks the consequences could be even more detrimental now that more foods are worth zero points, a feature that's meant to make members' diets more flexible. "I'm concerned that the expanded list of ZeroPoint foods will contribute to overconsumption in members who have dysfunctional relationships with food, and that WW facilitators will be ill-equipped to help."
While all of the RDs interviewed are happy to see WW attempt to shift the focus from just weight loss, they aren't sure WW members or the public at large are going to change their minds about WW's role anytime soon.
"While the newly rebranded WW claims to put the focus on behavior goals, and that members are not required to set weight goals, the fact is that many members will still set weight goals," Dennett says.
Harris-Pincus agrees that consumers joining WW are still likely signing up to lose weight. "I just don't know if anybody is going to join WW because they want a healthier lifestyle vs they're looking to lose weight. It's really hard to switch over [the original intentions of the program]," she says.
Harris-Pincus appreciates the emphasis on holistic wellness. "Everything about you is going to affect your overall health—your diet composition as a whole, your physical activity, your stress, your sleep, your environment," she says. "Weight Watchers used to be quite literally only a weigh-in-weekly diet plan, so I'm happy that they're focusing on other things because we need all of those other things to be healthy and successful." Harris-Pincus also comments that having multiple pillars of lifestyle changes "raises awareness to people that it's not only a matter of restricting food to lose weight and be happy, and [that] weight loss isn't the end-all-be-all to health."
However, Harris-Pincus is quick to point out that WW's new focus is "basically a diet in disguise. And that's OK! But let's not pretend it's not a diet." She agrees with Dennett that consumers joining WW are still likely signing up to lose weight.
All of that said, Harris-Pincus still thinks WW is probably the best commercial weight loss program for clients. "I tell people that if they're going to go on a plan of some kind, Weight Watchers probably is the most sound one. I like that they're adding these things that are more health focused overall."
— Hadley Turner is an editorial assistant at Today's Dietitian.
1. Foster G. WW webinar briefing. October 4, 2018.
2. Weight Watchers becomes WW, reinforcing its mission to focus on overall health and wellbeing. WW website. https://corporate.ww.com/file/Index?KeyFile=395108713. Published September 24, 2018. Accessed November 1, 2018.
3. Your healthy habits pay off with WellnessWins. WW website. https://www.weightwatchers.com/us/wellnesswins-rewards. Accessed November 1, 2018.
4. ZeroPoint foods. WW website. https://www.weightwatchers.com/us/article/zero-pointsr-foods. Accessed November 1, 2018.