Weight Watchers Introduces PointsPlus: A Critical Examination of the New Plan

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What Has Changed in PointsPlus? Myths and Facts Revealed

Weight Watchers’ new weight loss plan, PointsPlus, introduces significant changes for those used to their previous Points-based program.

In late November 2010, Weight Watchers – the $1.4 billion/year-in-revenue diet behemoth – announced their new scientifically-based weight loss program, “PointsPlus.” This new system was heralded in the New York Times on December 3, 2010 as a radical upending of Weight Watchers previous Points-based system, particularly in relation to the new plan’s emphasis on “free” fruit.

But just how radical is the change? Is PointsPlus really that different from the older Points-based systems Weight Watchers has used in the past, such as Flex Points, Winning Points, Turnaround and Momentum? This article will examine the changes in Weight Watchers’ Points calculation formulas under PointsPlus, and what it actually means for individuals using the plan to try to lose weight.

Weight Watchers formulas: Points versus PointsPlus

Because Weight Watchers has applied for various patents related to its weight loss methods, the underlying formulas[FN1] are well known. The old formula is described in US Patent 6,040,531 originally filed in 1995. The formula for the older Points values are given by Equation 1:

Points value = calories/50 + fat/12 – fiber/5.[FN2]

In Equation 1, calories are given in calories and fat and fiber in grams.

Weight Watchers similarly describes the new formula in US Patent Publication 2010/0080875A1 and there are a variety of derivations and alternates forms in Equations 1-15. We will focus on Equation 10 (the one for US and Canada food labels) which, taken together with the instructions in Paragraph [0082] to divide by 35 and the recommended weights provided through the discussion, gives:

PointsPlus value = protein/10.94 + carb/9.21 + fat/3.89 – fiber/12.5.

All values here are given in grams. This equation is specific to US and Canada food labels; in the UK where fiber is not included in the carbohydrates, a different formula is used. Similarly, Weight Watchers provides other equations for handling alcohol calories (e.g. from beer, wine, spirits) as well as for handling sugar alcohol calories (e.g. from sorbitol, malitol, and similar sugar substitutes).

With the formulas identified, a more robust comparison of how the two programs view different foods can occur.

Myths and Facts about Weight Watchers’ PointsPlus system

Myth #1 – Calories no longer matter when on Weight Watchers.

Fact #1 – Calories are still computed by Weight Watchers, just indirectly. 1 gram of protein or carbohydrate has 4 calories and 1 gram of fat has 9 calories. Thus, both formulas are linked to calories.

Myth #2 – Everything changed with the Weight Watchers PointsPlus system.

Fact #2 – Weight Watchers did not meaningfully change the relative cost of eating fat or protein. Further, the diet is still premised on creating a calorie deficit and providing participants tools and structures to help them change their eating habits for the long term.

Consider a food with just 10 grams of fat (90 calories). Under the old system, the Points value = 90/50 + 10/12 = 1.8 + 0.8 = 2.6. Under the new system, the Points Plus value = 10/3.89 = 2.6. Same basic results are found for a food that is purely 10 g of protein (40 calories). Under the old Weight Watchers system, it would have a Points value = 40/50 = 0.8. Under the new system, its PointsPlus value = 10/10.94 = 0.9. While not identical, still quite close compared to the change for carbohydrates.

So what really changed with Weight Watchers PointsPlus?

1. Carbohydrates are now more expensive. Consider a food that is 10 grams of carbohydrates (40 calories). Under the old system, its Points value = 40/50 = 0.8. Under the new system, it has a PointsPlus value = 10/9.21 = 1.1. While this is not a huge difference at first glance, the extra cost of carbohydrates can add up if one has a carb-heavy diet.

2. Fiber is viewed as less beneficial. Consider a food that has 10 grams of carbohydrates, 4 g of which are from dietary fiber (still 40 calories). Under the old system, its Points value = 40/50 – 4/5 = 0.8 – 0.8 = 0. Under the new system, PointsPlus value = 10/9.21 – 4/12.5 = 1.1 – 0.3 = 0.8. That is a significant change, particularly in regards to high fiber, whole-grain foods which previously were considered beneficial for their filling, nutritive content (e. g., brown rice vs. white rice, whole wheat bread vs. white bread.)

3. No more 1 Point value muffins. Foods that were specially designed to take advantage of the old formula, and especially the opportunity to deduct up to 0.8 of a Point value, are now clearly less desirable to plan participants. This includes many food items previously produced and sold by Weight Watchers.

4. Rounding accounts for some big changes. The humble sweet potato comes in for a harsh doubling in cost due to rounding rule changes under PointsPlus. The old system rounded to the nearest 0.5, while the new system rounds to the nearest whole point.[FN3] A medium sweet potato has 24 g carbohydrates, 4 grams of which are dietary fiber, and 2 grams of protein for a total of approximately 104 calories – or a Points value of 1.3 under the old system and a PointsPlus value of 2.5 under the new system. But with rounding, it was previously 1.5 Points and is now 3.0 PointsPlus.

5. Alcohol is penalized harshly under PointsPlus. Alcohol came in for the roughest treatment in the new Weight Watchers system. Take 5 oz of red wine, which has approximately 15 grams alcohol (7 calories/gram) and 4 grams of carbohydrates, or approximately 121 total calories. Under the old system, its Points value = 121/50 = 2.4. Under the new system, its PointsPlus value = 4/9.21 + 15/3.01 = 0.4 + 5.0 = 5.4.[FN4] More than double the Points! Those who enjoy casual or social drinking, therefore, may find it difficult to fit any alcohol consumption into the PointsPlus system except with extreme moderation.

6. Free Fruit. Fruit costs used to be computed based on nutritional information, but now fruit is always considered by Weight Watchers to have a PointsPlus value of 0. Equation 18 of the patent provides some insight that calories still matter, however, and participants are not meant to eat infinite free fruit. Rather, Weight Watchers has allocated a fixed budget of calories to 0 PointsPlus value fruit.

7. New Calculation of the Target Daily. The newer patent publication describes the computation of the daily food consumption target in equations 16-19. These formulas in turn rely on scientific research about calorie requirements from a 2005 report, “A Report of the Panel on Macronutrients, Subcommittees on Upper Reference Levels of Nutrients and Interpretation and Uses of Dietary Reference Intakes, and the Standing Committee on the Scientific Evaluation of Dietary Reference Intakes.” In contrast to the old weight banded-targets described in the earlier patents, these formulas are based on age, gender, weight, and height. Or, loosely speaking, participants’ targets are (target calories – 1000)/35.[FN5]

8. Almost all participants have higher daily targets under PointsPlus. Given that the old system described in the patent went from 18-35 points and the system described in the new patent ranges from 29-71, most participants will have a higher daily PointsPlus target than their previous daily Points target. A number of participants went from 18-to-29 points; however, others only went from 24-to-29. Because the change in how the target was calculated is unrelated to how food values are computed, the relative increase in target is not always well aligned with the relative increase in food values. For example, someone whose target went from 18 to 29 had a 160% increase in their target. But 1 Point value of food could be approximated as 50 calories while 1 PointsPlus value of food can be approximated as closer to 38 calories (in both cases this is based on a mixed basket of everyday, non-alcoholic food items compared under both formulas). That is only a 131% increase. So some participants were given a larger increase in their points target than the adjusted food values would suggest makes sense based on the formulas.

Conclusions

Weight Watchers new PointsPlus plan represents a forward thinking, science-based set of changes to their decade-plus old framework for measuring the values of food and providing participants a target. While it is not per se a low carbohydrate diet – especially with the free fruit – it appears designed to nudge participants in the direction of lower carbohydrate and alcohol consumption and towards higher fruit and vegetable consumption.

The question remains, however, whether Weight Watchers participants will find success under PointsPlus versus previous Points-based systems. One of the selling points of Flex, Momentum, and similar past Weight Watchers systems was the freedom participants had in choosing how to budget their daily points based on their lifestyles and food preferences. PointsPlus, by edging closer to a low carbohydrate system with a heavy penalization of substances such as alcohol, may feel too restrictive to some users.

In coming weeks, I will present my personal findings of experiences in following the PointsPlus system versus Flex Points, which was the system I used initially in 2003-2004 to loose 70 pounds. In attempting to re-lose 15 of those pounds I have put back on in the past 7 years, I rejoined Weight Watchers this December and used both the new PointsPlus and older Points formulas to track my progress. I will also be presenting results from other Weight Watchers participants, some who have found PointsPlus a better option for them, others who have returned to using old Points calculations.

Follow-Up Article on Weight Watchers PointsPlus

Please check out my follow-up article “Weight Watchers PointsPlus: The Problem of 29,” which looks mathematically at why those with a low daily PointsPlus target of 29 may find that PointsPlus is not working for them.

Footnotes:

FN1: Mathematical formulas are not, in and of themselves, patentable. See the US Supreme Court case of Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63 (1972). The terms Points and PointsPlus are trademarks of Weight Watchers; their use in discussing the patents is a nominative use to provide clarity to the article and to link the discussion to the patents. These calculations have not been verified or endorsed by Weight Watchers.

FN2: Weight Watchers eventually capped the fiber deduction under Points plans at 4 grams, or a maximum -0.8 deduction to the Points value.

FN3: This article states all values to one decimal place to avoid the rounding effects.

FN4: Equation 12 provides the formula for alcohol.

FN5: This oversimplification and does not take into account the lower and upper bounds, the adjustment for free fruit, or the adjustment for 49 weekly points.

Sources:

* Elissa Gootman. “Weight Watchers Upends Its Points System.” New York Times, December 3, 2010.

* US Patent 6,040,531, assigned to Weight Watchers International, Priority Date November 1, 1995.

* US Patent Publication 2010/0080875A1, assigned to Weight Watchers International, Priority Date August 29, 2008.

* Weight Watchers Official website.

* “Weight Watchers.” Wikipedia.

* Personal experience.

This article was first published at Yahoo! Voices on January 23, 2011.

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