How (And Why) The Mighty Weight Watchers Has Fallen

Weight Watchers just can’t seem to catch a break. It’s a downward trend that, as someone who once lost 20 pounds with and worked for the company, I face with mixed emotions. Is an uncontrollable string of bad luck to blame for this demise, or did Weight Watchers simply have it coming?

While Weight Watchers continues to reign as the #1 U.S. News Best Weight-Loss Diet, headlines pertaining to the plan have faced a negative decline over the past three years, correlating with falling profits. Just last week, it was announced that revenues were down 21% in Q4 2015: “The 12th straight quarter,” reported the Wall Street Journal, “that revenue declined at Weight Watchers.” But what happened? How did the once dominating weight-loss authority fall from a $6.2 billion value just five years ago, to a fledgling company facing a $2.2 billion debt?

Seven years ago, I would have unequivocally pointed to inexplicably poor fortune. “This makes no sense,” I would have said. “I’ve lost so much weight with the program, and it’s so easy.” That was before a combined series of moves - by Weight Watchers, individuals, and the entire wellness industry - set in motion a progressive loss of members, dollars, and enthusiasm for all things Points.

Financial experts have pointed to a number of explanations for the demise, particularly those rooted in the tech and mobile sector. Business analysts blame the greater availability of free weight-loss apps, for example, that many consumers deem just as, if not more effective than the Weight Watchers system. But the best insight, I believe, comes from those who have witnessed the deterioration first-hand: Former colleagues and members who, like myself, once proudly considered themselves poster children for the program, but strayed to watch the continued descent from a distance.

For many, it began in late 2011, when Weight Watchers replaced the long-established Points system with PointsPlus: A program that was intended to address the upward real food trend, and rewarded members for choosing whole foods, especially zero-point fruit, over their processed counterparts. The flaws were copious; despite the stated purpose of the new system, shelves at meeting centers were still lined with additive-laden snacks. Furthermore, the zero-point fruit offering was often abused by some members who would indulge in - true story - no less than a dozen pieces of “nature’s candy” every day, and were left bewildered by the lack of results. Then, there was the 2013 resignation of former CEO David Kirchhoff: A move mourned by those who were privileged enough to work under his tenure.

The biggest grievance I received, however, and also personally experienced, was that the introduction of PointsPlus served as an attempt made by Weight Watchers to fix something that wasn’t broken. Working in the meeting room and serving as a frontline for members following their weekly weigh-ins, I heard it repeatedly: “I switched back to the old Points program and, now, I’m losing weight again.” As an employee, I couldn’t comment; the PointsPlus rollout also came with an entirely revamped, highly corporate approach to customer interaction that emphasized sales more than support.

The desperation of Weight Watchers in the face of a financial collapse is painfully recognizable. Enlisting Oprah Winfrey, who, since investing in the program only a few months ago has taken a multi-million-dollar bath, is a strategy considered wise by few. It confuses and distorts the brand, illustrating a communications breakdown perfectly summarized by a joke I overheard: “Oprah’s new bread commercials are really weird.”

Weight loss efforts are highly personal and emotional. They come replete with introspection that leads to many questions, most of which are prefaced with, “Why?” Why isn’t this working? Why am I doing this? Why am I still lacking confidence, despite the so-called success on the scale? That mental scrutiny can lead to various forms of burnout. For many, that form is becoming good and sick of counting, and of assigning numbers - calories, macronutrients, Points, PointsPlus and, now, SmartPoints - to every single crumb consumed.

That was certainly the form of burnout I experienced, and I know that I’m not the only one. The latest trend? People are sick of counting, and many of us have seen the light, in that we know eating real food isn’t so bad. My personal revelation: Eating what’s local and in season isn’t going to make me overweight. And while I haven’t stepped on a scale since my January resolution to stick with that approach and relationship with food, I can say that I am generally less hungry, less inclined to binge, and my clothes fit just fine. A poster child, perhaps, I today am not. But come Saturday morning, I’ll be thrilled that I won’t have to deprive myself of food, water, or breath mints until I step on the scale.

NOTE: One thing I neglected to mention in the original version of this article, due to word-count parameters, were the monthly weigh-ins required of anyone on the payroll. Meeting room employees were put on probation if they ever went more than two pounds over their respective goal weights. It's an imperative aspect of the decline, in that the program's own ambassadors became extremely fatigued by the obsession with numbers, whether they were dollars or pounds.