Weight Watchers Dieters Can Have a Free Lunch?

Why Weight Watchers is letting people eat fruit with abandon

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They are words you never thought you'd hear from the president of the world's largest diet company. "Calorie counting has become unhelpful," David Kirchhoff said recently on the Weight Watchers International website. "When we have a 100-calorie apple in one hand and a 100-calorie pack of cookies in the other, and we view them as being 'the same' because the calories are the same, it says everything that needs to be said about the limitations of just using calories in guiding food choices."

With that, he and his $2.7 billion weight-loss empire deep-sixed the company's popular Points system, which since 1997 had helped millions of dieters (1.3 million in 2009 alone) lose weight by eating whatever they wanted as long as they kept portions under control. The new system still leaves room for some sin food but penalizes fat and empty calories as it tries to steer dieters toward more natural, less processed food.

It's an interesting move given that the 48-year-old company makes a lot of money selling dieters its double-chocolate muffins, mini-cheeseburgers and other snacks. The radical overhaul, which is the first major alteration to the Points program, comes at a time when Weight Watchers is trying to revive its recession-battered business. Because most members have to pay about $40 a month to go to group-support meetings and use online tools, attendance worldwide was down 7% in the first three quarters of 2010 compared with the same period in 2009. "Given the choice between losing 10 pounds or paying the rent, the latter wins every time," says JPMorgan analyst Ken Goldman.

He's still neutral on Weight Watchers, but the guys at Bank of America are getting sweet on it again, largely because they think the new plan is a winner. (The ubiquitous commercials with supersvelte spokeswoman Jennifer Hudson don't hurt either.) The shift to the PointsPlus system means many longtime participants will buy new cookbooks, food scales and calculators. Plus, lapsed members like me are suddenly coming back to meetings so we can figure out how the new program works.

In December I attended my first Weight Watchers meeting in a long time. (I got down to 127 lb. (58 kg) in 2004, but several pounds had recently crept back on.) What I found there was both familiar and very different. Like the old program, the new one assigns a point value to pretty much every food item under the sun and calculates a daily ration of points based on a member's height, weight and age. But most of the point values have changed. The system now favors foods that are high in protein or fiber, which make the body work harder to convert them into energy and also leave the belly feeling fuller longer. Meanwhile, point values went up for foods loaded with carbohydrates, which are more easily absorbed by the body and turned into fat.

These changes make sense, except that not all carbs are treated equally: fructose-laden fruit and all but the starchiest vegetables have zero points under the new plan. At the meeting, some veteran dieters expressed apprehension about this. A banana used to be something you treasured, a 2-point treat, and now you could eat the whole bunch with impunity? The group leader, a friendly Australian named Murray who had lost 35 lb. (16 kg) through Weight Watchers, politely pointed out that moderation was still in order. Still, he didn't seem overly concerned. "We're not here because we ate too many fruits and veggies," he said wryly.

Marion Nestle, a high-profile professor of nutrition at New York University, agrees. "It's pretty hard to overeat things that have so much water in them and so few calories," she says. "I'm sure it can be done, but you'd have to be eating all day long." But Jennifer Andrus, an experienced dietitian whom I had consulted during my own weight-loss odyssey, is less blasé about the new fruit-is-free rule. "Unless the science has changed, a calorie is still a calorie," she says. "I think that people are going to have less dramatic results with this plan."

At a Weight Watchers meeting I attended on Jan. 2, a long line snaked out the door, filled no doubt with resolution makers. As a different group leader — Josh, who had lost 170 lb. (77 kg) — explained the new program in detail, I watched a young woman near me down a banana and a clementine. Later, as I read the Weight Watchers message boards, I wondered whether Andrus might be right. An Ohio woman lamented on the site that her healthy snacks (popcorn, Fiber One bars, etc.) use up more precious points than they used to. "I then resort to eating fruit and veggies since they're such a bargain, and I know that's the whole point, but then I get bored," she confessed. "The next thing I know I'm at the vending machine at work, furiously stuffing in my dollar and speed-dialing the number for pizza-flavored Combos."

I knew that temptation all too well: my extra pounds were the result of too much noshing at the office. But the new Weight Watchers program worked for me. Within a month, I was back down to a trim size 6. Yet I must admit that I'm still a little fruit-shy, limiting myself to no more than a couple of pieces a day. And zero trips to the vending machine.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 24, 2011 issue of TIME.