Stephanie Rost, RD, WW's director of corporate program development

Once upon a time, an overweight Brooklyn housewife named Jean Nidetch went on a diet prescribed by a local clinic and dropped 20 pounds.  She felt pretty good, until she found herself slipping back into bad habits.  Determined to keep the extra LBs at bay, she got together several of her weight-challenged friends and started a support group.

And so was born the forerunner to Weight Watchers, officially incorporated two years later  in 1963.

Today, millions of people in 30 countries around the world attend weekly Weight Watchers meetings or participate in the program online.  I wonder how many LBs that translates to?

I’ve tried Weight Watchers a few times over the years and have always been impressed by its sensible, lifestyle-oriented approach to weight loss and management.  It’s what I’m doing right now, as a matter of fact, although it is a little different this time.

Last fall, WW announced its new PointsPlus program.  Although the philophy is basically the same — change the way you eat for life, instead of crash-dieting for the short term — “PointsPlus is a completely new system, ” according to Stephanie Rost, RD, WW’s director of corporate program development.

Here are the key differences:

The old Points program worked according to a formula based mainly on calories, as well as grams of fiber and fat.   The new PointsPlus system is more … nuanced.  The old formula was easy to figure out — after a while on the plan, you could read the nutrition info on a given  food package label and pretty much calculate the WW points.  PointsPlus, on the other hand, doesn’t count calories at all!  The formula is based on grams of fat, carbohydrates, protein and fiber.  Harder to do that math in your head — I mean, four whole variables!

Why change the formula at all?  Rost says the new formula is more evidence-based, more up to date and more accurate. You can’t go solely by calories, she says.  “The new system focuses on the nutrients that make up those calories.  It’s very important  to take into to account where those calories come from, because that affects how your body processes calories.”

Humph.  Guess that explains why they increased the points for wine, sushi … even cannellini beans!  All that interactive, macro-nutrient dynamic stuff.  Damn.  Says Rost:  “It’s not just wine and sushi.  In fact, literally all of the values have changed.  Some of them stayed the same and some of them went lower, but the majority went higher.”

The daily point allowance increased, too.  For example, my current daily allowance is 29.  I’m  not sure, but I think it was 25 or so before.

It still doesn’t feel high enough!  Yet, I am slowly but surely losing weight, even during those weeks when I’m not very good.

The weekly “extra” allowance points have gone up, too.  So that helps.  Every little bit …

OK, difference #2.  That would be the WW Power Foods, which Rost describes as the “Cliff Notes guide for our members to the most filling and satisfying foods.”  I probably didn’t probe Rost enough on this (we only had a half-hour interview and soooo much to cover!), but I think she meant food that gives you the biggest “satisfaction” bang for the calories.  For example, pineapple is up there.  It fills you up.  For me, soup is a huge Power Food.  You gotta watch out for the sodium, though. I try to buy — or make — low-sodium soups, like Pacific’s low-sodium roasted red pepper and tomato soup.  Sometimes, at night, I have a bowl of that when I’m hungry, and then go to bed, totally satisfied.

Difference # 3 — and this is big — under PointsPlus, all fruits and vegetables are zero points!  Note:  This does not include stuff like beans and potatoes; they’re legumes or something else not-strictly-vegetably and they have points.   Also, your broccoli may be free, but the oil you saute it in is not.  You have to keep track of those add-ons.

A friend of mine asked:  “How can that be?  How can you eat as many fruits and vegetables as you want?  After all, they do have calories that add up after a while!”

Good question.  Stephanie?!

Well, Gentle Reader, the idea here is not to GORGE yourself on fruits and vegetables (my words, somewhat paraphrased from Stephanie’s, who is more tactful than I am).  You don’t want to be STUFFED, like a relleño or a Thanskgiving turkey or whatever, but satisfied, as in NOT STARVING.

Says Rost:  “We do a lot of education around understanding feelings of hunger and fullness, especially with respect to fruits and vegetables; eating until you’re statisfied, not until you’re stuffed.”  She says that WW conducted clinical trials to analyze how many calories people consume daily from fruits and evegetables, and they adjusted the daily PointsPlus targets to account for that.

But, as Rost notes:  “It’s a bit difficult to eat five apples” at a time.  In other words, be reasonable, people!

 Rost stresses — and this is important — that WW is not a diet; it’s a lifestyle plan.  It’s not prohibitive in the sense that you can never again in your life have a cheeseburger, or a chocolate fudge sundae. 

It’s about balance. 

So, be aware of what you’re eating, and the impact it has on your body and on your health.  A cheeseburger every other week or so?  Not so bad.  But two or three every week?  Not so good.  Especially considering  — if you’re honest about it — that you’re going to have a side of fries and/or cole slaw and a beer or a soda with that burger.  It’s an indulgence.  That means “occasional.” 

I asked Rost about processed foods as well.  You know, frozen foods, Kraft cheeses, most cereals, etc.   On the one hand, the new PointsPlus plan discourages them.  But WW sells its own processed foods, too, and, I suspect, makes a fair amount of money from them.

Rost says it’s about moderation.  “We’re a food guidance system,” she says.  “But at the end of the day, you get to make the decisions.”

So true.  And not just at the end of the day, but throughout it, every day. 

Convenience foods do have value.  I generally keep a couple of WW or Lean Cuisine boxes in my freezer for those days when my work docket is really packed with conference calls and I don’t have time to make something for lunch.  They’re good.  And they’re satisfying, especially with a piece of fruit for dessert. 

Are they the very best choice?  Probably not.  I probably could do better, if I had the time.

And that gets to another very important point that I’m only beginning to address.  It’s so much easier to plan and eat sensibly when your time is your own — when you’re not traveling for work, dealing with the totally insane schedules of your job and your various family members and then trying to cook (healthily) for all the people in your family.

Well, I’m single.  I don’t have a husband or kids, but I do still find it hard to maintain control.  How do the rest of you do it????

Thoughts, anyone???

More later!  (Sooner.)  Ciao.