Many dieters have to measure and track every item they eat or drink. And a lot of healthy food isn't cheap.
With that in mind, Weight Watchers — one of the oldest weight loss companies in the world — recently introduced a new program that allows users to spice up their daily meal plans with 200 foods that don't require any kind of tracking or measuring. In other words, plan members can eat as much of these foods as they want.
The new list of so-called "zero-point foods" has some surprising additions, from whole eggs and salmon to beans.
It sounds almost too good to be true. As far as the program is concerned, that smoked salmon omelette you ate for brunch wouldn't count. Yet the new framework reflects several recent changes in how scientists and dietitians think about healthy food.
"These foods get picked for a reason," Gary Foster, Weight Watchers' chief scientific officer and an adjunct professor at University of Pennsylvania's medical school, told Business Insider in December.
The crux of the current Weight Watchers program, popularised by talk show host Oprah Winfrey, is a system called SmartPoints. Servings of food are assigned points based on four criteria: calories, saturated fat, sugar, and protein. Every Weight Watchers member gets assigned a daily and weekly point goal based on their height, weight, age, and gender. The points totals are designed to help them lose half a kilogram to a kilogram per week. That figure is widely considered a safe pace for successful weight loss.
Previous iterations of the SmartPoints system calculated foods' points based on other nutritional factors, such as fibre. But because the most recent US Dietary Guidelines emphasise the negative effects of sugar and the importance of protein, the most recent SmartPoints system does, too.
"We anchor ourselves to the dietary guidelines," Foster said. "It's one thing for a team of experts to say, 'This is what the globe should eat,' and it’s our job to then develop a system that can change that pattern of eating."
To encourage people to eat more fruits and non-starchy vegetables like broccoli and kale — which decades of research suggest are linked with overall positive health outcomes and weight loss — Weight Watchers has designated all fruits and leafy veggies as "zero-points foods." Members can eat these foods without counting them in their points total. That's because overall, these foods tend to pack a lot of key nutrients and help you to feel full. They've also been linked with a reduced risk of chronic disease.
People tend not to overeat the foods on Weight Watcher's new list. While you might easily down two helpings of pumpkin pie, you'd have to consume two dozen servings of steamed broccoli to end up with the same overall calorie intake.
The new Freestyle program includes 200 foods that previously counted for two to four SmartPoints.
Whole eggs, beans, peas, corn, and nearly 50 different kinds of fish are all on the list. So are 11 kinds of shellfish, including crab and lobster, as well as skinless chicken and turkey.
The case for eating many of the foods on the new list has been bolstered by several recent studies — many of which overturn decades-old wisdom on nutrition. It was once believed that eating eggs, which are high in dietary cholesterol, would raise cholesterol. But recent research has shown that eating cholesterol doesn't necessarily translate into having high cholesterol, just as eating fat does not translate into being fat.
Plus, many of these high-fat or high-cholesterol foods are also rich sources of protein, a key nutrient that fuels muscles and helps keep you feeling full. Instead of spurning high-fat, protein-rich foods like salmon, the new program is designed to encourage participants to eat more of those items.
"These foods form the basis of a healthy eating pattern," Foster said. "Do we really care if people are eating 4 ounces of salmon vs 6 ounces of salmon? No."
Many high-sugar foods — especially processed foods like cookies and cakes that pack a lot of refined carbohydrates — remain in the "high points" terrain. The exception to that rule is fruit, which still has zero points since it packs a lot of other healthy nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
To ensure the new guidelines work for Weight Watchers participants, the company teamed up with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to run a six-month clinical trial of 152 people. The results haven't been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but Foster said that so far, many participants have been shown to lose weight, see decreases in waist circumference, report fewer cravings and feelings of hunger, and improve their sleep.
That's promising, especially when combined with the thousands of participants who've agreed to try out the new system in meeting rooms around the country, Foster said.
"It’s that combination of data that makes us feel very confident," he said.
But can you really eat as many eggs as you want on the plan?
Yes and no, Foster said — the new system is designed to give people more healthy, nutrient-rich options that they're unlikely to overeat. The chances that someone is going to order a 10-egg omelette are slim, he added.
Plus, many of the foods that are now considered zero points are even on a ranking of so-called "powerhouse foods" compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Very few people come to Weight Watchers because they’ve had a problem overdoing it on salmon, legumes, beans, and chicken," Foster said. "Someone might think 'OK I’m eating salmon, no sweat on that. If I’m eating chocolate cake, I know I still have to measure that.'"