Weight Watchers ProPoints plan – what’s it all about?
Weight Watchers put out a press release “embargoed to 1st November 2010″. The press release that I saw had two pages – each page looked like it was designed to fold into a two sided postcard. One page was called “The SCIENCE behind the Weight Watchers ProPoints Plan” and the other was called “The Weight Watchers ProPoints plan EXPLAINED. I’ll refer to them as the SCIENCE PAGE and the PROPOINTS PLAN EXPLAINED PAGE below…
THE SCIENCE PAGE
The science page essentially says “Calories have been around for nearly 200 years”. The science page notes that the work was developed in the late 1800’s by a chemist called Atwater. Wilbur Atwater was also working with Max Rubner and, between them, they developed the first calorimeter and established that the approximate calorie content of carbohydrate, protein and fat was 4, 4 and 9 respectively. If I share at this stage that, in Rubner’s publication in 1901 (Note 1), carbohydrate, protein and fat were estimated to have 4.1, 4.1 and 9.3 calories per gram respectively – you can see that this has never been a precise science. (Rubner recorded the calorific value for olive oil as 9.4, so even his 9.3 was an average of four fats reviewed).
ProPoints seems to be about taking on board the fact that carbohydrate, protein and fat require different amounts of energy to be turned into energy by the body. Weight Watchers may think they are leading the way with this ‘new’ science, but they are playing catch up. Indeed on Radio 4 this am, Weight Watchers company dietitian Zoe Hellman opened by saying the science has been there for 10-15 years. Here is my take on the SCIENCE page:
1) The science on carbohydrate, fat and protein being different is right – the obesity world has known this for almost a decade (not 10-15 years). (It’s quite fun to see Weight Watchers acknowledge this, as dieticians have been saying “a calorie is a calorie” since time began and this proves that it isn’t!) Here’s an extract from p23 of my book:
“…Eric Jequier, who works in the Institute of Physiology, University of Lausanne, Switzerland found that the thermic effect of nutrients (thermogenesis – energy used up in making useable energy) is approximately 6-8% for carbohydrate, 2-3% for fat and 25-30% for protein (Note 3). I.e. approximately 6-8% of the calories consumed in the form of carbohydrate are used up in digesting the carbohydrate and turning it into fuel available to be used by the body. In contrast, 25-30% of the calories consumed in the form of protein are used up in digesting the protein and turning it into fuel available to be used by the body…
Richard Feinman and Eugene Fine, a biochemist and a nuclear physicist respectively, have done some outstanding research in the area of thermodynamics and metabolic advantage of different diet compositions (Note 4). In their 2004 paper, they took Jequier’s mid points (7% for carbohydrate, 2.5% for fat and 27.5% for protein) and applied these to a 2,000 calorie diet comprising 55:30:15 proportions of carbohydrate:fat:protein. This demonstrated that 2,000 calories yielded 1,848 calories available for energy. I repeated the calculation for a 10:30:60 high protein diet, as another example, and the yield drops to 1,641 calories.”
Dr. Geoffrey Livesey has been another great pioneer in this area. He has estimated that fat has 8.7 calories per gram. Back in 2002, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) assembled an international group of nutritionists, including Livesey, to investigate the possibility of recommending a change to food labelling standards to update the four, four and nine calories attributed to carbohydrate, protein and fat respectively (Note 2). The group, with the exception of Livesey, decided to stick with the long-standing values because, the report concluded, “the problems and burdens ensuing from such a change would appear to outweigh by far the benefits”. I would have supported Livesey, but with the recommendation that he go way further and challenge the entire application of these estimates.
To put this idea of thermogenesis (energy used up in making available energy) in simple terms – let us say that we eat 100 calories of, say, banana – the Jequier work tells us that 92-94 calories may be available to the body. Eat 100 calories of, say, white fish (a close approximate to protein) and only 70-75 calories may be available to the body. The body effectively has a 25% advantage if trying to get energy from protein vs. carbohydrate. However…
a) We should not use this as a plan to eat an unnaturally high protein diet as this can deplete the body of vitamin A and damage the liver. We need to eat real food in the natural fat/protein balance that nature provides;
b) This assumes that the body will try to use protein for energy and it likely won’t. There are an estimated 1,500 calories needed for the basal metabolic rate for an average woman and these ‘body maintenance’ calories need to come in the form of fat, protein, vitamins and minerals – things that the body can use for building bones density, cell repair, fighting infection and generally keeping us alive. The good news is – eat good calories in the form of real food (meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, veg/salad, nuts/seeds) and the body can use these as part of the 1,500 calorie planned maintenance for the day. Eat 400 calories of sugar (no fat, protein, vitamins or minerals) as the average Briton does and the body can’t use these for basic needs. Then you have to burn these off with activity, or they can be stored as fat.
2) On this SCIENCE sheet – bottom section – we find the words: “this helps to create an energy deficit which is fundamental for successful weight loss.” I disagree. We can only lose weight (break down triglyceride, which is what human fat tissue is) when the body has no option but to break down triglyceride. This can only happen when there is no glucose or glycogen (the body’s storage form of glucose) available in the body. Eat 3,000 calories of pure meat and fish (zero carbohydrate and therefore no glucose or insulin to store fat) and a person will lose weight. Eat 3,000 calories of sugar, white flour and processed carbohydrate and the same person will gain weight.
Weight Watchers are still calorie counting – they are still obsessed with creating a calorie deficit (and – as we will see below – they still believe the fundamental calorie myth that it’s all to do with 3,500 calories and one pound of fat).
3) Finally, the bottom section of the science page states “filling and healthy foods are also great choices for healthy weight loss, as they are nutritionally superior, being higher in fibre and/or lower in salt, sugar and saturated fat.” I disagree. Nutrition is about what is IN a food as much as what is NOT in a food. The nutritious macro nutrients are fat and protein (carbs just provide energy and we can get that from fat – eaten or stored – as well). The micro nutrients are vitamins and minerals and the levels of these define how nutritious a product is. The most nutritious foods on the planet are liver, sardines, eggs, milk and sunflower seeds, They all contain no sugar (sucrose) whatsoever, but they also contain no fibre. They do contain plenty of excellent saturated and unsaturated fat. Fat is our friend! It is only the enemy of calorie counters. It contains the essential fats and the fat soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K.
Are Weight Watchers saying that ProPoints will be all about eating real food and only real food? Only eat what nature intended us to eat? Check out their food products page and I think the answer will be no. The ingredients in these products are horrific. One features on my web site list of my least favourite products – check out the number and the nature of the ingredients in the Weight Watchers Double Chocolate Brownie!
Don’t talk to us about nutrition Weight Watchers until you are prepared to ditch all your processed foods and tell us to eat as nature intended instead.
THE PROPOINTS PLAN EXPLAINED PAGE
This doesn’t actually explain ProPoints very well at all. Maybe the idea is that you need to pay to attend a Weight Watchers meeting or pay to find out more on-line so that they can tell you as a paying person. The page says that ProPoints is new, “very different” and “takes into account the amount of protein, carbohydrate, fat and fibre in a given portion. The result is a more accurate nutritional approach.”
I was on BBC Radio Wales with Ms Hellman this morning and she said that the calorie labels on foods are not accurate. I can imagine quite a few calorie counters not being happy about that!
The minimum daily ProPoints allowance is going to be 29. Call me cynical, but we all currently know that 1 Weight Watcher point is c. 50 calories. We don’t actually need Weight Watchers if we can count to 1,000 – if we can only count to 20 (units of c. 50) we may need them. Maybe Weight Watchers have realised this and want a number that can’t easily be converted so I’ll be interested in the ‘conversion’ of ProPoints to calories. People will be looking for a similar conversion going forward – calorie counters count calories at the end of the day!
In addition to the daily allowance, everyone is given an additional 49 ProPoints as a weekly allowance to use however they choose. Weight Watchers will no doubt hope you’ll be using them on their chocolate brownies and other processed food.
On the bottom part of the “explanation” page you can see the 3,500 calorie theory “the plan is designed to lead to a healthy and sustainable weight loss of up to 2lbs a week.” That can only come from one place – Weight Watchers believe that one pound of fat equals 3,500 calories (it doesn’t) and that, if you create a deficit of 3,500 calories you will lose 1lb of fat (you won’t). i.e. if you cut back by 1000 calories a day you will lose 2lbs a week (and I would be 6lbs in a year’s time – yeah right!) (All of this is covered extensively in my latest book: The Obesity Epidemic.
Zoe Hellman, Weight Watchers company dietician, is quoted on the top part of this page. On this link , Zoe Hellman is quoted as saying: “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.” (Point 6). I blow all of this apart in chapter 7 in the book. (I emailed Zoe Hellman about this on 6 April 2010 but she never replied).
There is also a note on this EXPLANATION page about fruit being ‘free’. It won’t count as part of the ProPoints allowance. I find this astonishing. Most calorie counters I know binge on fruit – they can eat a pound of grapes and/or 6-8 apples a day with no problem. Allowing people to eat as much fruit as they want whenever they want is going to have ProPoint dieters full of fructose and glucose all day long and make it impossible for them to be in a fat burning mode. Plus, fructose (see chapter 13 of my book) is now called “the lipogenic (fattening) carbohydrate” in the obesity world. Fructose goes straight to the liver to be metabolised – where it can be turned into fat if insulin is present. Insulin is present whenever we eat a carb (like fruit) and hence fruit – especially fruits with lots of glucose like bananas – can turn the body into a wonderful fat storing machine.
In this paragraph about fruit, Zoe Hellman refers to five-a-day as if it is a scientific principle in the top part of this “explanation” page. “We’ve made it easier than ever before to take in your five a day”, she says. This is not science. In Chapter 13 of The Obesity Epidemic I give the background to give-a-day. It started as a marketing campaign by fruit and veg companies in California in 1991, working with the American National Cancer Institute (NCI) (who have since trademarked the term). There was no evidence at the time that it would provide any benefit for cancer, let alone any other health condition. There has been none since (see the April 2010 a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute written by Paolo Boffetta, as the lead of a large group of European researchers).
Vegetables in butter are nutritionally useful (not as good as liver, sardines or eggs) but fruit is not that nutritious, too high in sugar, metabolised by the liver and best avoided by anyone needing to lose weight. Five-a-day is marketing, not science.
THE BOTTOM LINE
As Stunkard and McLaren-Hume proved in 1959 (Note 5): “Most obese persons will not stay in treatment for obesity. Of those who stay in treatment, most will not lose weight, and of those who do lose weight, most will regain it.” Stunkard and McLaren-Hume’s own statistical study showed that only 12% of obese patients lost 20 pounds, despite having stones to lose, only one person in 100 lost 40 pounds and, two years later, only 2% of patients had maintained a 20 pound weight loss. This is where the often quoted “98% of diets fail” derives from and it refers to calorie controlled diets. The 2007 Franz study updated the research on this topic and concluded the same – a fraction of the weight we expect to lose is lost and most of that is regained. There is simply no evidence in the obesity journal world of calorie restriction producing sustained weight loss.
Here’s another extract from p68 of my book where Weight Watchers themselves prove that people will lose a fraction of what they expect…
“On July 12 2010, under the headline “Weight Watchers does work, say scientists”, Sarah Boseley, health editor for The Guardian wrote a wonderful endorsement for Weight Watchers following a study done by the Medical Research Council (MRC), funded by Weight Watchers (Note 6). The original presentation of results from the MRC revealed that 772 people were studied: 395 people were simply given weight loss advice from their doctor (the GP group) and 377 were funded to attend Weight Watchers (419 of the 772 completed their respective programme). The study was a year in length and the likely deficit was at least 1,000 calories per day (a typical Weight Watchers allowance is 18-20 points, which approximates to 900-1,000 calories vs. an average 2,000 calorie requirement for a woman). The article reported that the GP group lost an average of six pounds (we know from the Franz study that ‘advice alone’ people did well to lose anything) and the Weight Watchers group lost an average of 11 pounds. The Weight Watchers group should have lost 104 pounds in fat alone. This study provided irrefutable proof that the calorie theory is wrong, which should have been front page news in itself, but this was not the story of the article. The story was “you’ll lose twice as much weight with Weight Watchers.” The headline should more accurately 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.” Not as catchy, but far more honest.”
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if Weight Watchers make a slight adjustment to the idea that protein is 4 calories per gram or that carbohydrate is 4 calories per gram. It doesn’t really matter what calorie number we assign to each food. Counting/restricting calories does not work – and we have known this since Benedict’s study in 1917. If calorie restriction did work, we would not have an obesity problem, let alone an epidemic.
p.s. Jan 2011 update – please note that I am sadly simply unable to keep up with comments on blogs/youtube/facebook and all the wonders of the web. Please feel free to leave a comment to have your say & for others to read. If you have any questions our forum is the best place to have them answered. Your question may well have been answered already so you can read the thousands of questions already there if you don’t want to join. Many thanks for your understanding. Very best wishes – Zoe
Note 1: Max Rubner, “Zeitschrift fur Biologie,” Festschrift zu Voit, (1901).
Note 2: Dr. Geoffrey Livesey, “The Calorie Delusion: Why food labels are wrong”, New Scientist, (15 July 2009).
Note 3: Eric Jequier, “Pathways to Obesity”, International Journal of Obesity, (2002).
Note 4: Richard Feinman and Eugene Fine, “A calorie is a calorie violates the second law of thermodynamics”, Nutritional Journal, (2004).
Note 5: Stunkard A. and M. McLaren-Hume, “The results of treatment for obesity: a review of the literature and report of a series”, Archives of Internal Medicine, (1959).
Note 6: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/jul/12/weight-watchers-works-say-scientists