In the ’90s, Weight Watchers was a household name. Most people were familiar with the popular points-based diet or had even submitted themselves to the weekly weigh-ins, meetings and endless points calculations all in the name of weight loss. Yet despite its millions of success stories, Weight Watchers soon fell out of favour as ‘healthy’ became the new ‘skinny’ and calorie counting was questioned as a viable dieting strategy. By the early 00s, Weight Watchers was synonymous with TV comedy Little Britain’s parody Fatfighters, where dieters were encouraged to eat specs of dust, and half a Ryvita - and those looking to lose a few pounds started looking for answers elsewhere.
Fast forward to 2019, and while Weight Watchers isn’t a name you’d expect to hear in the current wellness sphere, membership is soaring - and the health world is taking note. In the second quarter of 2018, the company reported 4.5m members worldwide, an increase of more than two million since the start of 2016, likely fuelled by recent endorsements from DJ Khaled and actor Kevin Smith. Meanwhile Slimming World, the UK’s biggest diet operation of its kind, now boasts around 900,000 members across its 18,000 weekly groups. In an age where there have never been more celebrity diet books and clean eating advocates on social media, why are so many harking back to retro regimes to shed the pounds?
It all comes down to the calorie equation , according to Zoe Griffiths, Head of Public Health at Weight Watchers, which recently rebranded as WW. “The only way to lose weight for good is to go back to basics. Taking in fewer calories than your body burns is a science-backed formula for weight loss.” While WW claims not to be based on strict calorie counting, their Smart Points system undoubtedly creates a calorie deficit, explaining why the average participant will lose two pounds per week.
A recent study showed those who kept a food diary doubled the amount of weight they lost compared to those who kept no record
Leading London nutritionist Lily Soutter credits the food-tracking component of traditional diet programmes for their high success rate. “Monitoring your calorie intake is one of the oldest weight loss tricks in the book,” she says. And the evidence would appear to back her up. A recent study by Kaiser Permanente's Center for Health Research carried out on 1,700 people showed those who kept a food diary doubled the amount of weight they lost compared to those who kept no record.
Soutter also champions the community element of slimming groups, something 28-year-old London-based Marketing Manager Rachael Kent agrees with. Since signing up to WW in January 2018, she’s lost 38lbs. “I spent my early 20s yo-yo dieting but when I weighed myself in January and saw the scales tipping just over 12 stone, I knew I needed a longer-term solution.”
What helped convince Kent was the way WW has modernised. With a thriving online community (described by Racked as “the only good social network”), users have 24/7 access to nutrition coaches and the app’s genius barcode scanner eliminates the need for manual Points calculations. Moreover, weigh-ins can be done at home and logged through the app, instead of at weekly meetings.
If WW’s methods have changed, so too has their demographic. Kent says her group is made up mostly of women in their late 50s but there are also several thirty-somethings getting in shape for their weddings, as well as a handful of younger men.
So why the millennial uptake? “Younger generations are beginning to see through fad diets,” says Griffiths. “Culturally, we’ve become more health savvy and have realised successful weight loss comes down to a sensible, time-tested solution.”
The roaring success of Pinch Of Nom , the cult diet blog from Kay Featherstone and Kate Allinson, is a classic example of millennials’ burgeoning faith in traditional calorie counting. The duo recently released a cookbook of the same name – it sold more than 210k copies in its first three days on the shelves. By week five, it had sold over half a million. Nearly two months after its release, it remains the bestselling book on Amazon. To put this into perspective, in 2015 Ella Mills became the fastest-selling debut cookbook author of all time, yet she sold just 32,144 copies in one week. Pinch Of Nom, like WW and Slimming World, also champions community and fuss-free recipes.
As further proof of the importance of tracking food intake, recent estimates suggest the average Briton consumes 50% more calories than they realise. The data, unveiled last February, shows men typically consume 1,000 more calories than they account for. For women, the figure is 800 calories. Meabwhile predictions are that 50% of the nation will be obese by 2045, according to recent figures. That’s more than double the forecasted global average of 22%, with the US the only developed country faring worse, at 55%. Yet despite the lack of awareness, it seems we’re still a nation of dieters with over half the British population on diet plans in 2017 - suggesting the key to getting healthier could be counting those calories after all.
That's certainly the angle Public Health England’s ‘One You’ campaign took when it was unveiled in March last year; it sparked controversy when it suggested sticking to 400 calories at breakfast and 600 calories for both lunch and dinner . Coming in at a daily total of 1,600 calories, critics described it as a “near-starvation diet” while some nutritionists warned it could foster an unhealthy obsession with food; but a closer look shows it has many similarities to the increasingly popular old ways of WW. While not explicitly based on calories, the WW formula relies on creating a calorie deficit, bringing total daily intake to around the 1,600 mark (often less for women).
Perhaps, then, the difference is in the language used. By encouraging users to count 'points' instead of calories, the programme is attractive to diet-phobes and those wary of getting obsessive over the numbers. The humble calorie may remain a contentious social issue, but with scientific credibility, technology and a thriving community behind it, WW offers people a workable dieting solution, without the draconian rigidity of dieting regimes. After all, its tag line reads “where no food is off limits” - and in the aftermath of the clean eating backlash and wars on everything from sugar to bread , what could be more attractive than that?