The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The new Weight Watchers is all about ‘wellness.’ Critics say it’s ‘diet culture’ in disguise.

Weight Watchers announced a rebranding to “WW” Sept. 24 as it shifts its focus away from dieting and more toward wellness. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

After more than a half-century, and countless, obsessive calculations on how many points you have to spend on your diet, Weight Watchers officially ceased to exist. On Monday, WW was born.

Armed with a catchy tagline, “Wellness that Works,” the company’s major rebranding not only does away with its old name but also marks a strategic move to align with a modern society in which terms such as “self-care” and “body positivity” are celebrated, and the slightest mention of dieting is met with harsh criticism.

Mindy Grossman, WW’s president and chief executive, touted the company’s new focus as a “360 degree approach to ‘healthy,’ no matter how you define that for yourself,” The Washington Post’s Rachel Siegel reported.

“Everyone is talking about wellness, and to a degree people don’t want to use the word ‘diet’ because they think it’s a more short-term, punitive kind of issue, and that’s not what we are,” Grossman said.

As part of the company’s current vision statement WW is aiming to “create a world where wellness is accessible to all, not just the few.” Wellness — or a “state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being” — and variations of the word “health” appear multiple times in this declaration. “Diet” and “weight” are nowhere to be found.

But news that the company, which spent decades building its reputation as “the world’s leading provider of weight management services,” is distancing itself from dieting to focus on wellness has been met with skepticism.

Founded in the early 1960s by a housewife from Queens named Jean Nidetch, the company has historically marketed itself as a science-backed, healthy way to help people lose weight, becoming famous for a strategy that involves assigning point values to different foods and weekly in-person group meetings, complete with weigh-ins, led by someone who has succeeded in the program.

Under its new brand, WW will still offer its points-based weight loss program, Grossman told NBC’s “Today” show Monday, but said the business wants to do more than just offer a “short-term solution.”

She said the company has been “evolving” to incorporate health and wellness practices, and attributed the company’s financial success to its adaptation. Indeed, the rebrand comes on the heels of the company announcing in August that it now has 4.5 million subscribers, an increase of 1 million from last year. According to Market Watch, its total revenue is more than $1.3 billion.

“We will never abdicate our leadership in the best healthy eating program for weight loss in the world, but we can be so much more today,” Grossman said. “What we want is to be a partner in health sustainably. Most people need a partner in helping them get healthy themselves and we’re that partner.”

It is not a surprise that diet brands, like WW, would be inclined to shift to promoting holistic, and perhaps vague, wellness approaches in a climate where dieting has largely fallen out of favor with the masses.

“Dieting is not a fashionable word these days,” Susan Roberts, a professor of nutrition and psychiatry at Tufts University, told NPR in 2016.

Recently, there has been growing backlash against “diet culture.” Christy Harrison, a New York-based registered dietitian, defines it in a blog post as a “system of beliefs” that “worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue,” “promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status,” “demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others” and “oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of ‘health.’”

The reaction is supported by scientific research and anecdotal evidence that suggests diets not only don’t work but can also lead to negative health impacts, including the development of eating disorders.

In 2007, researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles published an analysis of more than 30 long-term diet studies titled “Medicare’s Search for Effective Obesity Treatments: Diets Are Not the Answer.” The paper’s lead author, Traci Mann, now a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, said in a news release at the time, “Diets do not lead to sustained weight loss or health benefits for the majority of people.”

“We concluded most of them would have been better off not going on the diet at all,” Mann said. “Their weight would be pretty much the same, and their bodies would not suffer the wear and tear from losing weight and gaining it all back.”

Several first-person essays have also claimed that their dieting, specifically their participation in the Weight Watchers program, led them to develop eating disorders.

In one 2016 piece published on Refinery29’s Medium page, the writer described the fallout from her Weight Watchers experience. The author, who began the program at age 14, wrote that everything was great at first, until she stopped losing weight:

I felt like trash; I felt like a failure, and there were moments when I even felt like I didn’t deserve to live. Now that I had blown my only shot at skinny success, my eating habits fluctuated from Perfect Weight Watchers Angel to shove-everything-I-possibly-can-down-my-throat-before-Mom-sees, depending on the hour.

Similar accounts have popped up over the years.

“Weight Watchers fed into my perfectionist tendencies,” one woman wrote in 2017. “I began a cycle of counting and tracking points, bingeing, hating myself, restricting my food intake, exercising compulsively, feeling hopeful, and then spiraling downward again.”

When the company announced earlier this year it planned to give teenagers as young as 13 free six-week memberships, the outcry was instant. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, “as many as 10 in 100 young women suffer from an eating disorder” in the United States.

Emerging through the remnants of Lean Cuisines and SlimFast shakes are wellness practices — an appealing approach to overall health, including weight loss, that focuses on elements beyond the numbers on a scale. In 2015, the global wellness industry, which encompasses everything from beauty to real estate, was a $3.7 trillion market, according to the nonprofit Global Wellness Institute.

On social media, many pointed out that wellness is often used as a way to “disguise” diet culture, slamming WW as another example.

In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Harrison, the dietitian, said WW may have changed its name and added to its offerings, but at its roots the company is still a weight-loss service.

“It’s not like that’s gone away, it’s just gone underground,” she said.

Grossman, WW’s CEO, told BuzzFeed News the company will “always be the best at the science of eating as healthy as you can, period,” but added that WW is “the biggest proponent of body positivity of any brand I know.”

“We believe that wellness is not just about one thing,” she said. “Ultimately we’re looking for sustainable options for people to live the healthiest lives they want to live.”