Weight Watchers makes holidays easier by adding 200 items to its zero points list

  • Zlati Meyer
  • USA TODAY
9:54 a.m. Monday, Dec. 4, 2017

Dieters expect to eat foods like celery and sugar-free gelatin in unlimited quantities. But now they can throw in fish, skinless chicken breast and beans, too.         

Weight Watchers, the pre-eminent weight-loss plan in the U.S., announced Monday that it's adding more than 200 items to its list of foods that have zero SmartPoints, the rating system the company uses to help members monitor and control what they eat.         

The news comes less a month before people traditionally make New Year's resolutions, which often include losing weight.

Weight Watchers emphasizes that this change, part of its new WW Freestyle program, is about healthy eating and creating an easy system to adhere to.         

However, making it easier for dieters to keep track of what food they eat could also bring back lapsed members and attract new people to the program. For example, under the previous system, people eating a lunch of skinless chicken breast and lentils would have to calculate how many points were on their plates, but they don't have to anymore. Those foods are now freebies.         

"In today's world, they want as much simplicity as possible, as much freedom as possible, and they want something that works into their life," CEO Mindy Grossman said of potential members. "It will attract Weight Watchers members that see this and say, 'This looks like something I want to come back to.'"         

That could translate into earnings for the company. The New York-based weight-loss business has benefited from the so-called Oprah effect. TV mogul Oprah Winfrey, who's faced weight problems herself, bought a 10 percent stake in the company in 2015 and has repeatedly praised Weight Watchers publicly. The company initially got a boost from her, but then faltered in 2016. The next year, it bounced back.         

"Simpler. More livable. Love that I don’t have to count so many of my favorite foods, like corn and beans," Winfrey said in an email. "And what would I like to see improved? Scientists: Please find a way to make zero-point bread in my lifetime!"         

In its third-quarter earnings report on Nov. 6, Weight Watchers beat Wall Street expectations and posted net revenue of $323.7 million, compared with $280.8 million during the same period in 2016. Net income rose to $44.7 million from $34.7 million a year earlier.         

Close to 71 percent of U.S. adults age 20 or older are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

To some, Weight Watchers has a reputation for being out-dated or stodgy — a weight-loss system that had its heyday decades earlier.         

Founded more than half a century ago, the company faces competition from other old-school diet plans, like Jenny Craig and Nutrisystem, as well upstarts such as calorie-counting apps, juice cleanses, Fitbits and exercise crazes, like Pilates and spinning.         

Weight Watchers had 3.4 million subscribers as of the third quarter — the highest in half a decade. The company declined to release subscriber information for the years before 2012, but said that was the year it had the most subscribers ever.         

All vegetables and fruits became zero points in 2010, according to Weight Watchers.

Alex Fuhrman, a senior research analyst at the Minneapolis-based institutional broker-dealer Craig-Hallum, said he thinks Weight Watchers wants to copy that success of the early 2010s by again changing point values of foods.         

"You're not going to have to break out the kitchen scale every time you want to have chicken," Fuhrman said. "It’ll make the program a lot easier to follow and get more people off the hump and signing up to join."         

"Part of Weight Watchers' appeal," he continued "and part of what’s helped Weight Watchers to stand out in the diet landscape is they advertise nothing is off limits."         

Last New Year's, 29 percent of American adults resolved to eat healthier and 24% resolved to lose weight, according to the Harris Poll.         

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