Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Why 'WeightWatchers' is stupid

In a nutshell, WeightWatchers is so bad because it is a calorie controlled diet. Granted - it uses a points system to restrict your calorie intake, but at the end of the day it encourages you to follow the 'Eat less - Do more' way of thinking.

Since this way of thinking has been introduced; obesity has skyrocketed and this is due to the following reason:

When you restrict your calorie intake, firstly your body sends you a signal - hunger. This causes you to crave food which leads to overeating. If you ignore this signal, your body goes into 'starvation mode' and thus hangs on to any fat that it can and lean tissue is 'burnt as fuel'.

There was an experiment done in America in May 1944 - The Minnesota Starvation Experiment.
36 men - aged 20-33 were chosen (for their physical and mental resilience) from 200 volunteers.
The experiment lasted a year and was split into 4 phases:

Phase 1 - The Control Period.
This phase lasted 12 weeks and the intention of it was to determine the calorie requirements of the men. It was found that the men needed 3210 calories per day in order to maintain their weight whilst walking 22 miles per week (Just over 3 miles per day)

Phase 2 - The Starvation Period.
This phase lasted 24 weeks and was, in effect, a calorie controlled diet of approx. 1600 calories per day. The diet was comprised of foods that were generally available in Europe during this time period.

Phase 3 - Restricted Rehab Period.
This phase lasted 12 weeks and in it, the men were split into four groups and were given different calorie, protein and vitamin levels to see which would nourish them back to health

Phase 4 - Unrestricted Rehab Period.
This last phase lasted 8 weeks and the men were allowed to eat whatever they liked. The research team carefully monitored what they ate.

The men all reported massive hunger, weakness and exhaustion.
They lost 21% of their strength in the first 12 weeks of the starvation period.
They experienced muscle wasting and dizziness.
They became obsessed with food.
They had to team up with another member of the experiment to avoid 'cheating' (eating more than allowed).

The government is keen to impress upon us that if we create a calorie deficit of 3500 per week we WILL lose 1 lb of fat
Do not aim to lose weight too quickly, or you could end up losing muscle rather than fat. Aim for half to 1 kg (1-2 lbs) per week. This means eating 500-1,000 fewer calories than you were eating and drinking before. You should lose 6-12 kg if you keep this up for three months.  from here
A pedometer gives the user the ability to measure how much they have done and a goal to aspire to. Walking the recommended 10,000 steps in a day will burn 500 calories, and doing that five days a week will burn 3,500 calories – enough to lose 500g (1lb) of body fat from here
Aim to lose about 0.5-1kg (1-2lb) a week until you reach a healthy weight for your height. You should be able to lose this amount if you eat about 500 to 600 calories fewer a day than you need. from here

The Minnesota Experiment renders this advice to be utter rubbish:
The calorie deficit in the starvation phase was 1630 calories per day by eating less and almost 3000 calories per week by doing more! The average weight loss of the men was 37 lbs (1.5 lbs per week). If this formula was correct, every man should have lost 95 lbs in fat during the 24 weeks. (The lightest man in the study would have ended up at under 3 stone!)

During the experiment it was determined that some men needed to be restricted to 1000 calories per day in order to attain the desired weight loss and if the 3500 calorie deficit myth is to be believed then these men should have lost over 5 lbs per week or 120 lbs over the course of the 24 weeks. What actually happened was that the human body adjusted it's energy requirement to combat any further weight loss.

All men reached a plateau at around week 20 and one man even recorded a weight gain during the final 4 weeks! but this was attributed to him chewing gum - His results were not used.

During the final phase - the unrestricted phase, all of the men overate and binged in order to regain their calorie deficit. One of the men - Harold Blickenstaff, was sick on the bus on the way back from one of the meals on phase 4; he found that he simply
Couldn't satisfy [his] craving for food by filling up [his] stomach
Many also reported eating excessively  after they left Minnesota; Jasper Garner described it as a 'year long cavity' that needed to be filled.
Many like Roscoe Hinkle put on substantial weight after the experiment had concluded.

This is why WeightWatchers will not work in the long term you would need to restrict your calorie intake for life; even then your body would reduce the amount of calories it needed to maintain its weight and thus you would need to reduce your calorie intake even more just to maintain weight.


  1. OK I'll bite (no pun intended!)

    so what is the answer?

  2. Hi Matt,

    I've been doing the Harcombe diet -

  3. Hi Mat, got a few comments on your post.

    "During the experiment it was determined that some men needed to be restricted to 1000 calories per day in order to attain the desired weight loss and if the 3500 calorie deficit myth is to be believed then these men should have lost over 5 lbs per week or 120 lbs over the course of the 24 weeks. What actually happened was that the human body adjusted it's energy requirement to combat any further weight loss."

    Your last sentence actually explains why the '3500 calorie deficit myth' isn't a myth. The theory says to lose 1lb of fat you need to create a calorie deficit of about 3500 calories. So these men were INTIALLY in a deficit of around 1600 cals per day based on their calorie output at that time. As you rightly note over the course of losing weight their metabolic rates will have dropped (though not by nearly as much as you might think) and this is why they didn't lose 95lbs of fat, because by the end they weren't in a deficit of 1600 calories any more. All of this you have said yourself.

    My point is where has the 3500 calorie theory gone wrong? No-one has ever said that your energy output stays the same throughout a diet, an educated dieter should know this. The fact remains that you still need to create a 3500 deficit to lose a pound, just that if your calories out go down, then you will need to decrease your calories in to still get that deficit.

    Another point to make is that a 1600 calorie per day deficit is a large one and hardly comparable to the usual advice of a 500-100 cals per day deficit. Muscle loss will be worse with a deficit of this size. Also these men were forced to diet beyond the point at which (it is hoped!) that most people would have stopped dieting as their goal weight had been reached. Muscle loss is also more of an issue with lean people. The less fat you have on your body, the harder your body will fight to keep it. So starving the crap out of already lean men is bound to lead to some bad muscle wastage. Again this is not comparable to the situation the average dieter is in.

    Most people should have no physiological issues with sustaining a calorie deficit of 500-1000cals per day for extended periods of time, ideally interspersing diet periods with diet breaks to help reset certain hormones and to give a psychological break before cracking on again.

  4. "This is why WeightWatchers will not work in the long term you would need to restrict your calorie intake for life"

    Why? You restrict your intake until you reach your goal weight. Once you have done this, you can then increase your intake back to a maintenance level. Yes, this maintenance level will be slightly lower than it was when you were heavier (maybe by a few hundred cals per day), chiefly due to less calories being expended during activity due to your lighter bodyweight. Your BMR will return to its normal level once you go back to maintenance calories, it's not permanently damaged as some would have you believe! Also, the drop in BMR when dieting is not massive. The largest drop ever seen in a controlled experiment was around 30% and that would have been in people like in the Minnesota experiment, in a serious state of starvation.

    Finally, I have, myself, dropped around 2 stone in the last 6 months simply by 'Eating less' and 'Doing more'. There's nothing I won't eat, I just make sure I don't overeat calories. I eat loads of carbs, but make sure I get enough protein and healthy fats too. I play sport about 3 times a week and also do some treadmill running and some weights. They key thing is I make sure I eat less than I burn and the weight pretty much drops like clockwork. If I'm consistent with my efforts, I'm rewarded with consistent weight loss. I'm not starving, I'm not losing muscle (quite the opposite due to my weights sessions) and I'm slowly approaching my target bodyfat level. When I get there, I can let myself eat more in order to maintain my weight and carry on exercising in order to make keeping the weight off easier.

    OK, I've gone on far too long. Hope you have time to read and respond to some of my comments.

  5. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your comments.

    The last study I've seen one states that after 4 years, the average loss from a calorie restricted (by either a reduction in calories consumed or an increase in calories expended) was 4kg.

    In the Minnesota starvation experiment; I believe all of the men retuned to their previous weight + some!

    Personally, I'd rather change my diet to eat lots of real food and sod the gym! - I have lost 3 stones in 10 months doing this. I have never felt hungry and feel much much fitter than ever before!

    You have done really well and I'd be interested to hear how you get on in the long term when your calorific intake approaches a normal level.

  6. In addition:

    Research shows (Stunkard & Hume 1959) that few people will lose a significant amount of weight, even when they have stones to lose, and 98% will regain any that they do lose

  7. I don't think any diet has been found to have good long term results. Maybe in a few years Zoe will be able to show that people on her diet lose weight and keep it off for longer, who knows.

    To me, this is simply because most people are unable to change their habits in the long term. Most people, eventually, slip back into their old eating and (lack of) exercise habits and end up regaining the weight. This doesn't mean there was anything wrong with the method they used to lose weight, just that changing a lifetime's habits isn't easy!

    As I said above, I believe Zoe vastly overstates the reduction in metabolic rate due to dieting. I also find her views on exercise utterly barmy, totally wrong in some cases (e.g.her view that muscle is burnt before fat during running) and her opinions on insulin are VERY simplisitc (carbs--> Insulin release--> fat storage) Whilst many didn't appreciate James Krieger's posts on the board a few months ago, his series of articles on Insulin are a real eye-opener, and show why Zoe's hypothesis is simplistic and that carbs are not evil!

    I won't raise these issues on her site as she has asked me not to post which I am respecting. I understand she has a book to sell and doesn't need dissenting voices!

  8. Mark,

    I'm a firm believer in eating how nature intended and it has worked for me! - I have lost 3 stones without exercising at all - I have started doing some walking now as I enjoy it. If you enjoy pumping iron at the gym - go for it! When I was at the gym 4 years ago I hardly lost any weight at all and felt hungry all the time - Granted I did feel fitter and more toned but it certainly didn't work as far as weight-loss goes.

    It is also important not to neglect the effect cortisol has on fat storage, particularly in the abdomen where there is an abundance of cortisol receptors.