the wedding day!

As you may already know, I’m a former adherent of the Weight Watchers programme. I turned to it to shed the extra pounds before my wedding, and to my mind, it worked: I think I lost around a stone in total, was able to shimmy into the most gorgeous dress I’ve ever worn in my life for the big day, and have kept most of the weight off in the (nearly) 2 years since I got married. So I was very interested to see what Dispatches would come up with in last night’s investigation into the world’s biggest weight loss company, which aired on Channel 4 and is now available to watch on 4od in case you missed it. Ironically, it appeared that in the spirit of things, Dispatches decided to do a “diet” version of its programme, which yesterday evening only lasted thirty minutes (most episodes of Dispatches last an hour). On the one hand, I was disappointed by this, as there was so much more scope for further investigation than this ultimately rather superficial episode allowed; but on the other hand, I was relieved, as it was possibly the worst episode of Dispatches I have ever seen. It was packed with spurious reasoning, and the slightly arrogant presenter Jane Moore seemed determined to find fault at every turn. This was obvious right down to her tone of voice in the voiceovers.

So what were the allegations exactly?

First up was the cost – firstly of the meetings, and then of the products themselves. Of course they didn’t talk to anyone who found that they got value for money out of the cost of membership, and their comparisons of Weight Watchers food product prices with ‘normal’ product prices missed the point also. All brands have different price points; Weight Watchers is no exception. Plus, as is mentioned in the programme but just as quickly glossed over, nobody has to buy the products: it’s perfectly possible to thrive on the plan without touching a single one, and the presenter herself admits that it’s laziness in calculating ProPoints values that drives her towards the Weight Watchers products during her week-long experiment with the system (more of which later). I admit that I have bought some Weight Watchers products in my time, and that they taste nice, but that as they can be a tad on the expensive side, I only buy them at Poundland at times when I know the same product would cost me more than this at a leading supermarket. Even if you don’t want to shop at Poundland, the programme also failed to mention that many supermarkets frequently have offers on Weight Watchers products, which increases value for money somewhat (at Tesco, for instance, you can buy any two Weight Watchers bread products for £1.40 at present, which sounds a darn sight better than the 95p a loaf cited by Dispatches). In the end, too, the purchase of diet foodstuffs is just another of the many buying decisions we make each day. To my mind, people spend hideous amounts of money regularly on all kinds of stupid things, such as cigarettes, nightclubs, and jaw-dropping mobile phones – so who is anyone else to judge if a person wishes to pay a small premium for a multipack of Weight Watchers baked beans?

The sales structure of Weight Watchers also came under Dispatches’ scrutiny, with the idea of Weight Watchers staff being paid commission for product sales, signups, and even users’ weight loss amounts being criticized. This is no different to any other sales job (including Avon, where I used to work). In fact, many sales companies employ far more immoral tactics, and pay their employees far more for it (Weight Watchers staff make a modest average of £27,000 a year). The criticism of these methods of making money seemed like little more than an anti-capitalist diatribe from the programme makers. The best part of the programme was perhaps the bit when Jane Moore didn’t get the reaction she was hoping for from a member of the public when she revealed the difference between the price of a Weight Watchers loaf and that of a Hovis loaf: he just shrugged and said something to the effect of “that’s marketing for you”. As mentioned above: if you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay. Information abounds online about how to follow the programme without paying the monthly membership fee, the Weight Watchers cookbooks are accessible to all, and you don’t have to buy the food products.

Jane Moore with a selection of Weight Watchers products

Next it was the health value of the products that came under fire. While Haagen-Dazs ice cream was revealed to have only five or six quality natural ingredients, the Weight Watchers ice cream was shown to have a list of ingredients that looked more like a chemistry lesson. This is the case for most diet products, and no secret has ever been made of the sweeteners and chemicals that are pumped into such products to give them fewer calories while still delivering the same level of flavour. It’s also not as if Weight Watchers have ever claimed to produce fully natural products. Again, the Weight Watchers products are optional, as you can easily work out the points value of any food you wish to purchase thanks to the various methods of calculation available (I’ll come back to this). But in short: anybody who thought this was new information or was in any way shocked by it must have been living on Jupiter for the past few years. Plus, I’m betting that anybody following Weight Watchers probably isn’t famed for putting the purest of the pure into their bodies in the first place.

One of the aims of the Weight Watchers programme is that we do increase the healthiness of our diets. This message is emphasised in several ways: firstly, that most fruits and vegetables are zero points, so you can eat them in abundance. Secondly, the concept of the one-point snack is highlighted as a reasonable way to manage cravings when the munchies strike. Thirdly, there are several points calculators available so that you can see exactly how many points are in the food you want to consume. Once you’ve worked this out, you can then make an informed decision about whether or not you still wish to eat it. The electronic points calculators are greatly derided in the programme, mainly due to their cost of around £10 – no mention at all is made of their efficacy. However, what the show also fails to mention is that free slide rules are distributed during Weight Watchers meetings. I have one of these and use it far more than the electronic calculator. It’s incredibly quick and simple to use, as well as being portable and discreet, so that you don’t feel like a weirdo when doing your food shopping. Arguably even more discreet is the free ProPoints mobile phone app, but naturally this is only given a passing mention by Dispatches. In the face of this, Jane Moore’s claim that the system is not easy to follow doesn’t stand up quite so well – especially given that her trial of the Weight Watchers programme was over in the blink of an eye with practically no analysis. This, along with the impression that she didn’t try very hard, makes her unconvincing.

Others interviewed for the programme also apparently failed to see the value behind the points system, figuring that you can’t be on such a system for the rest of your life and that such a system will not help you to make wiser dietary choices. Theoretically you could remain on the system indefinitely if you wanted to. But it’s as with the Weight Watchers products – nobody is asking you to. Plus, as anyone who has actually followed the system for a reasonable length of time is aware, it does encourage healthy choices, since (as mentioned previously) healthier foods contain fewer points. As someone who eats a lot normally, you’re focused on trying to get as much food out of your points as possible, and you quickly realise that you can do this by sticking to the lower-value (and thereby healthier) foods.

A further bone of contention lay in the fact that the NHS spends millions of pounds on sending people on twelve-week Weight Watchers courses, which are paid for by primary care trusts. Funnily enough, only the tabloid newspapers really seized on this with any fervour in Britain when this was made known to the public. It makes me wonder if people would feel better if the NHS went through a different diet company for its referrals: is it just Weight Watchers people love to hate, or the diet industry in general, or something else entirely? In addition, I feel it’s more profitable to spend money on twelve-week Weight Watchers courses for those who need them, rather than spending the same money on gastric bypass surgery, or treatment for obesity-related illnesses. Why not spend the money on giving people the chance to change before they need more severe and ultimately more costly treatment?

It’s true that the system is not easy to sustain long-term (say, for more than six months), and that’s probably why I’ve just joined the ranks of the guilty and signed up for a gym membership recently. However, no diet programme is easy to sustain for this amount of time, and it depends how much effort and commitment you are willing to show. I’ll put my hands up: I stopped putting in as much effort, and so I have put back on a little of the weight I initially lost. But this is like with anything in life: if you slacken your effort, it will show in your results. Studies of the effectiveness of the Weight Watchers programme show good short-term results – and to me this shows honesty, as most people will not attend the Weight Watchers meetings on a long-term basis (although I hear that you can attend for free forever as long as you stay within 5lb of your target weight), and individuals’ motivation after they cease to formally follow such a programme is very difficult to measure. Dispatches therefore blames Weight Watchers for individuals’ choices when discussing the apparent lack of long-term weight loss engendered by the system.

The studies are also criticized by Jane Moore and co for their lack of accessibility (of the 80 or so studies that have been done, only around 10 were available to the Oxford researcher featured in the programme), the presence of self-reporting in the studies, and the fact that some of the studies were partly funded by Weight Watchers themselves. Weight Watchers rebuts the first point by stating quite legitimately that journal access is governed by the journal publishers themselves, and that accessibility is therefore outside of their control. I believe this to be the case – but feel that to counteract doubt, they could surely arrange to make PDF copies of the studies more available after a certain period of time has passed. In terms of the second point, the reliability of self-reporting is going to pose problems with any kind of fieldwork, meaning that the same cracks could show up in other fields of research, rather than being unique to the Weight Watchers efficacy studies. Thirdly, Weight Watchers funded six out of the ten studies the Oxford researchers could access. While I can see how this may lead to the selective publication of positive results only, Weight Watchers was not the sole research fundraiser in any of these cases, so this is an unlikely outcome. Even if it were a likely outcome, they would not be the first brand to indulge in this practice: many high-profile beauty brands in particular are also extremely selective with which results they publish. I don’t condone this in any way – but mention it only to point out that Weight Watchers would hardly be alone in this. I also don’t believe that funding automatically has to equal bribery – but this is the conclusion that Dispatches leaps to.

It therefore dismays me that people may have watched this programme and been taken in by the ill-informed claims presented within its thirty-minute time slot. But all I can do is urge people to fully research any diet plan they may consider embarking upon, so that their decision can be balanced and considered. People will always have good experiences with a brand or product, and people will always have bad experiences with the same brand or product – but I’d like to think that the ability to help people make such choices is one of the main reasons why I started blogging, and why I still enjoy it.

As for my own use of the Weight Watchers programme, I’m not adhering to it strictly at present, but perhaps needless to say, I haven’t been put off it completely. My slide rule has already had one use this evening and the points book with the values of different foods is never too far away. And at the moment, I’m looking forward to March, which will bring with it my next trip to England, and Poundland – where I can stock up on batteries, toothpaste, and – you guessed it – Weight Watchers crisps.