For years I've had a love-hate relationship with Weight Watchers.
I love the fact that they've tapped into one of the most potent strategies for behavior change on the planet -- group support and accountability.
I hate the fact that their nutritional information is stuck in the dark ages.
But that might be changing. Weight Watchers has finally updated its "Point System" -- its proprietary (and clever) method of counting calories without actually counting calories.
The old point system, which began in 1997, assigned "points" to foods. Based on a members weight, age, height, gender, amount of exercise and weight loss goals, he or she was allowed a certain number of points a day. The points assigned to any food were based primarily on these elements: calorie content, fat and fiber, and therein lies the rub.
While no intelligent nutritionist would argue that calories don't matter, many would argue -- as I have -- that they are far from the whole picture. You can lose weight by keeping calories (or "points") low, but basing the point system primarily on calories ignored the significant body of research showing that different foods have profoundly different effects on hormones that drive fat storage (like insulin).
And the nutritional philosophy of Weight Watchers has always fallen firmly in the camp of the low-fat crowd, with strong recommendations for low-fat or no-fat choices and -- needless to say -- the avoidance of saturated fat.
My beloved niece lost weight on this program which of course I was happy about, but it pained me when she'd read me the "important" facts about a food which always included how many grams of fat they contained, a piece of data which I've long claimed is utterly irrelevant. Apparently that claim is gaining some traction in the mainstream. The conservative chairman of the Harvard School of Public Health's nutrition department -- the esteemed and unimpeachable Walter Willet, M.D., Ph.D. -- recently made this statement at the annual Food and Nutrition Conference of the American Dietetic Association:
"The focus on fat in dietary guidelines has been a massive distraction ... We should remove total fat from nutrition facts panels on the back of packs."
Weight Watchers recently announced a revision of its point system. The new system allots points based on a complex algorithm that takes into account the specific mix of protein, fiber, carbs and fat in any food.
"It's a complete overhaul; it doesn't get any bigger than this," said Karen Miller-Kovach, the chief scientific officer for Weight Watchers International. "Fifteen years ago we said a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. If you ate 100 calories of butter or 100 calories of chicken, it was all the same. Now, we know that is not the case, in terms of how hard the body has to work to make that energy available. And even more important is that where that energy comes from affects feelings of hunger and fullness."
The recognition of the fact that different proportions of protein, fat, fiber and calories matter is truly a revolutionary step for Weight Watchers. So is the recognition that some macronutrients (protein) help you feel fuller.
Maybe it's too much to expect that they will also one day recognize that the proportion of fat in the diet is irrelevant to any major health outcome, and that fat is the one macronutrient that has zero effect on the fat storage hormone insulin. But who knows? We can hope.
Weight Watchers may not represent the cutting edge of nutrition, but the new points program is definitely a step in the right direction. Kudos to WW for being willing to reevaluate and evolve.
Who knows ... maybe the American Dietetic Association will be next.