Fifty-six-year-old Lynn Kaufman of Los Angeles has maintained a healthful weight on Weight Watchers for 10 years. But she was snacking way too much on the wrong kind of stuff, she says -- like 100-calorie cookie packs and hot chocolate.
Today she jokes that Weight Watchers must have been spying on her. "I think there was a video camera in my house and they said, 'We don't like the quality of the food you are eating.' "
In November, Weight Watchers unveiled its new point system, PointsPlus, to its 1.3 million members worldwide. The organization is hoping the change -- the first overhaul of the point system since its inception 13 years ago -- will breathe fresh air into its program, keep members losing weight and maybe even make them a little bit healthier.
The basic program, as before, works this way: A member is given a weekly allotment of points to spend on food depending upon factors such as age, sex, height and weight.
Here's what changed. Under the old system, the number of points allotted to a food was based mainly upon its calories -- a banana and a 100-calorie bag of cookies cost the same two points, for example. Under the new system, points are calculated based on a complex algorithm that takes into account factors such as fiber, protein, carbohydrates and fat.
"We used to say 'A calorie is a calorie is a calorie,' " says Karen Miller Kovach, chief scientific officer and registered dietitian for the organization. "We recognize now that nutrients that provide those calories ... also have an impact on the body. The new formula is completely different than how we originally calculated."
For example, scientists now know more about how food calories are converted into an energy source the body can use. What's been found, in a nutshell, is that the body works harder to use protein and fiber than it does carbs and fat. And that means carbs and fat are more easily stored by the body.
In addition, Miller Kovach says, protein provides more satisfaction than carbs. The new system "still creates a calorie deficit, but it is geared toward foods that keep you feeling full longer."
The new system also encourages consumption of high-volume, low-calorie foods such as low-calorie popcorn and broth-based soups, adds Stephanie Ross, registered dietitian and corporate program development director for the organization.
To encourage people to eat better, the new point system is set up so that foods high in protein and fiber typically "cost" fewer points than fatty and carb-laden goodies. The system has a list of "power foods" that are filling and low in points, including nonfat dairy, lean proteins and whole grains.
So, for example, under the old system, a croissant served with a pat of butter (for a total of 270 calories) would have cost the same amount of points as 270 calories consumed in the form of one poached egg, 3 ounces of ham, a piece of whole-wheat toast and a pat of butter. Under the new system, the croissant-butter combo would be seven points, but the healthier egg-ham-toast-butter option would be only six points.
Probably the biggest change, however, is that fruits and nonstarchy vegetables are now free, when they used to cost points. "They are free because people do not have excess weight because they abuse apples," Miller Kovach says.
Ross says that people lost weight during a three-month clinical trial of the new program. They also exhibited eating patterns consistent with long-term success in keeping weight off -- monitoring food intake and exercise, eating slowly and putting the fork down between bites.
Donald Hensrud, medical editor of the Mayo Clinic Diet and an associate professor of preventive medicine and nutrition for the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine in Rochester, Minn., says the revamped plan appears to place more focus on health in addition to weight management.
"I think they are reading some of the same literature that I am," he adds. Weight maintenance, he says, has a lot to do with calories in versus calories out, but "there are many different nuances to consider," such as a food's energy density, whether people are truly tracking calories and the kinds of diets people can stick with.
Hensrud says that a food pyramid created at Mayo Clinic more than a decade ago also recommended people eat all of the fruits and vegetables they wanted to. There are a lot of studies to support that kind of diet instead of ones that focus on low-fat or low-carbohydrate, high-protein intake, he says.
Kaufman, who is a group leader in Los Angeles, says that many of her members "felt busted" when the new point plan was unveiled. And she's observed over the years how people work the system.
"I have seen people's journals," she says. "They'll eat Weight Watchers ice cream for breakfast, 100-calorie packs for lunch and pizza for dinner. We were getting away with eating badly -- and a lot of people were doing it."
It's too early to tell what the long-term success of the new program will be, but Kaufman says that, thus far, the number of people attending meetings has grown and that members are embracing the change and losing weight.
Weight Watchers would have moved to the new system years ago, but the technology hasn't been available, Miller Kovach says. When the points program was first announced 13 years ago, nutritional facts had only recently appeared on packaging. With this new information at their fingertips, Americans could quickly calculate a calorie/point conversion right there in the supermarket. "The system was developed with the idea that we needed something that was simple, flexible, livable and could be done by people within the context of their lives wherever they were," Miller Kovach says.
Today, courtesy of technological advances, the organization can figure points based on a more complex system and members can access the information online, via iPhone, iPad and soon by Droid. Theoretically members can easily eat more, feel better and still lose weight.
But maybe the biggest benefit, to Kaufman's mind, is that it encourages healthful eating while still allowing for splurges.
"There are enough extra points to get in some alcohol, pizza and Christmas goodies," she says. "When Weight Watchers takes away my fun, I'm out of Weight Watchers."
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Diet programs make changes
The new year has ushered in updates for several of the mainstream diet programs. Along with Weight Watchers' new system, two others are making big changes in 2011.
* Nutrisystem has reduced the price for its Nutrisystem Select program, which offers a "fresh-frozen" gourmet food line, to $299 a month. It is also adding new items to its menu.
* Jenny Craig has always measured the calories clients take in, but the new Metabolic Max program is based on monitoring both intake and calories burned. Clients wear an armband that tracks the calories used up, then the numbers are uploaded to an online database that individuals can refer to.