Weight Watchers works – according to a study funded by Weight Watchers

“One pound of fat contains 3,500 calories. To lose 1lb a week you would need to cut out 3,500 calories from your overall weekly nutritional requirements, this equates to needing a deficit of 500 calories a day.”[i] (Zoe Hellman, Weight Watchers dietician)

This is the formula believed by Weight Watchers, NICE, the NHS, the Department of Health, the National Obesity Forum, British Dietetic Association, the Association for the Study of Obesity (the organisation of which Susan Jebb is the chair) and 99% of public and private health diet advisors.

I have two points to make:

1) None of these organisations even know from whence this formula came and none can prove that it is true[ii];

2) This study has beautifully proven the formula wrong – as has every study of calorie restriction since 1917.

Weight Watchers sets out to create a deficit of approximately 1,000 calories a day (a typical female needs 2,000 calories, but is ‘allowed’ 18-20 points. One point is roughly 50 calories, so this is an approximate 900-1,000 calories a day diet). Weight loss, with a 1,000 calorie deficit, over one year, should be 104 pounds in fat alone (more in lean tissue and water)[iii].

The Medical Research Council (MRC) presentation for the results of the study[iv], contain a graph for weight loss over the 12 months for the GP vs. WW groups (slide 8). (Please note the regain starting at 9 months with WW). Jebb says that the GP group lost an average of 2.8kg and the WW group lost an average of 5.2kg. Slide 10 confirms the difference between the two weight loss approaches as 2.4kg at 12 months.

This means, however, that the Weight Watchers group lost an average of 11 pounds in one year – less than one pound a month. According to Weight Watchers own dietician (Zoe Hellman) and the ASO’s believed formula (Susan Jebb), they should all have lost 104 pounds (in fat alone) and there should have been no difference between people, with the same deficit – a formula is a formula.

In my experience of working purely in the field of obesity – two pounds a week is the minimum that people want and expect to lose. One woman said to me “With nearly half my current weight to lose, I can’t cope with two pounds a week”. Why was I the first person to be honest and tell this 60 year old woman that, if she lost two pounds a week, week in week out until she reached target weight, she would be the first person in the world ever to do so.

Weight Watchers have just admitted – you will be considered a success, worthy of the headline “Weight Watchers works”, if you lose one tenth of what you have been led to believe you will lose.

The headline should have been:

“Weight Watchers works better than just going to the GP, says study funded by weight watchers; but you will be lucky to lose one tenth of your lowest expectation.”

Maybe not as catchy, but far more honest.

Zoë Harcombe

p.s. Susan Jebb points out that she has not been paid for her involvement. a) Her involvement has likely been small (slide 7 suggests that she has not even been the key advisor to the study group). b) The MRC employs over 4000 people[v]. They need work to do and it would be interesting to know how much Weight Watchers have paid towards their employment costs for this endorsement. c) Susan Jebb is presenting at the Weight Watchers Symposium in Stockholm tonight[vi], expenses paid?


[i] http://www.cosmopolitan.co.uk/your-life/diet-advice-10-big-diet-myths/v1 (under point 6)

[ii] Full FOI available upon request – or on a scribd post on www.zoeharcombe.com/thecaloriemyth/

[iii] 1000 calories deficit multiplied by 365 days and divided by 3500 = 104 pounds

[iv] http://www.mrc-bsu.cam.ac.uk/BSUsite/CHTMR/AM_forweb.pdf

[v] http://www.mrc.ac.uk/About/Factsfigures/index.htm

[vi] http://www.ico2010.org/documents/WeightWatchersprogrammeec23.06.10.pdf (or view it here)

(the original reference to (vi) expired)

Posted in Conflict, Other Diets
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4 comments on “Weight Watchers works – according to a study funded by Weight Watchers
  1. avatar Kelly Bliss says:

    This is so sad for yo-yo dieters who are being seduced to continue to weight cycle. This is a ONE YEAR study, funded by WW. This is the FIRST PART OF THE WEIGHT CYCLING PROCESS that results from diets. Yes, in the first year people lost weight. However, multiple studies show that if we were to follow these same dieters for 2-5 years, most will have gained more back than they lost.(*) We need to end this endless weight cycling and make peace with our bodies. We need to shift from a weight centered approach to a healthy lifestyle with body diversity acceptance. See this article in National Geographic for information on the new peace movement, a new health paradigm (**) called Health At Every Size™: http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/news/health-every-size/

    (*)Mann, T., Tomiyama, A.J., Westling, E., Lew, A.M.., Ann-Marie; Samuels, B., Chatman, J., Jason. (2007). Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer. American Psychologist. Vol 62(3), Apr 2007, 220-233. http://motivatedandfit.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Diets_dont_work.pdf

    (**)Bacon, L., Aphramor L. (2011). Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift. Nutrition Journal 2011, 10:9 doi:10.1186/1475-2891-10-9 http://www.nutritionj.com/content/10/1/9

  2. avatar Milke says:

    Quote “Why was I the first person to be honest and tell this 60 year old woman that, if she lost two pounds a week, week in week out until she reached target weight, she would be the first person in the world ever to do so.”

    As an old neighbour of mine used to say that was a wandering statement. I lost 3 stone in less than 5 months average 2 pounds a week by my calculations. I have kept the weight off since and I would be fairly sure many other people have done the same. I did not pay anyone or buy certain food to lose weight I simply used the eat less move more approach. Using this makes it way easier to keep the weight off as you are not depending on anyone to lose weight in the first place.

  3. avatar Christine Wilks says:

    Well, I have been an on/off dieter for 30 years. I am now 55 and, until a few weeks ago, bigger than ever. I have religiously attended WW meetings, stuck to their diets and lost some pounds – obviously then putting it back on (and more). The never ending circle. A few years back they brought out “Switch”, which seemed a healthy way to diet. You just had to eat “real” food. I love cooking, so it was great for me and I lost weight – however, at the meetings, this diet was not actively pushed (probably because they couldn’t sell any of their products) and dieters were encouraged to stick to the “points” system instead (I think the “leaders” were familiar with points and didn’t know how to prepare “real” food, so couldn’t lecture on it). I too lost interest and gave up. Over the years, I have exercised until I was exhausted (I actually used to be an aerobics instructor), walked until my knees hurt, while all the while trying to eat “healthily” (ie more calories out than in, more carbs, less meat, etc). I have had to eat less and less and exercise more and more each time I have dieted to enable me to lose weight. Over the years, I have suffered from severe heartburn, joint aches and pains (probably caused by too much exercise) and skin problems (rosacea). Just after Christmas, my sister gave me a copy of your book “The Obesity Epedemic”. It was a revelation which I am sure has changed my life for ever! But I feel so very very angry at all the incorrect advice I have been given all these years. I didn’t start on phase 1, as I didn’t want to be too restrictive so i started on phase 2. 1st week 5 pounds loss, 2nd 2 pounds, 3rd 2 pounds, and this week another 2 pounds. I simply cannot believe it! I have NEVER lost this much weight. I have eaten eggs, butter (loads), cream, meat, fish, cheese, loads of veg, salads with dressings and oils, and simply cannot believe I am losing weight eating all this food AND NOT GOING HUNGRY. Furthermore, my rosacea (I have had it for 15 years) has GONE. I have had NO heartburn (incredible when they say it’s fat that causes heartburn) and I have more energy than I have had in years – with no joint aches and pains. I am eating delicious food, which both I and my husband enjoy to the full and I feel wonderful because I am confident that I will lose all my excess weight and keep it off for life. Weight Watchers should be ashamed, along with all the other “slimming” clubs and health organisations. Thank you so much Zoe.

    • avatar Zoë says:

      Hi Christine – wow – thanks so much for sharing all this and to your sister for getting the book! The hardest thing writing the book was not letting my anger show. It just seems so blindingly obvious – we weren’t obese (1972 – 2.7% obese); we changed our diet advice and got obese (1999 – 25%). The same happened in the USA and Australia. But we won’t admit we got it wrong and go back to eating what we ate since time began. It is enough to make one angry. We are killing people. We are literally making diabetics on a daily basis. The expert panel on a Woman’s Hour special in January (great programme) all agreed that dieting (calorie deficit dieting) did not work 97% of the time and yet they still stuck to the advice – eat less/do more.
      You have also discovered that eating real food clears up a whole host of other nasty conditions too – I truly believe that we could empty doctor waiting rooms if people just ate food. Any yet I’m seen as radical!
      Keep up the great work – check out our club if you need support or have queries
      Very best wishes – Zoe

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