Weight Watchers SmartPoints value is based upon calories, saturated fat, sugar, and protein. Saturated fat and sugar increase the SmartPoints value and protein decreases it. This is part of Weight Watchers shifting its focus not just being weight loss, but to encouraging healthy eating. While no food is forbidden, Weight Watchers really doesn’t want us filling up on high sugar and high saturated fat foods. I have previously posted about Weight Watchers approach to sugar and to saturated fat.
When discussing SmartPoints, though, I often see or hear comments along these lines. Why doesn’t the SmartPoints value include fiber… or sodium …or trans fat or…whatever? Why doesn’t the SmartPoints value do more to encourage whole grains instead of refined grains? Does that mean that Weight Watchers thinks refined grains are just as good as whole grains? Why doesn’t the SmartPoints value do more to encourage meeting the former Good Health Guidelines?
Before discussing the specifics, there are two concepts that I think are really important to think about.
Be practical and realistic.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
These concepts lead to some basic conclusions about how to devise a program that will be easy for people to use and will be the most likely to lead to a healthier eating pattern, while helping members to lose weight.
SmartPoints Should Use Objective, Easily Obtainable Information
First, the SmartPoints formula must use objective information that is easily obtainable. Essentially, that means using nutrients that are on food labels. As I discussed in the post on sugar, it could be argued that is would be better if Weight Watchers could focus only on added sugars and not natural sugars. But, right now, added sugar isn’t on the food labels in the U.S. So, it isn’t possible to create a formula that would ask us to input added sugars because we don’t have that number.
You might ask whether Weight Watchers couldn’t adjust values for food with natural sugars so that they don’t get the sugar penalty? While appealing on the surface, this is neither practical nor realistic. First, it isn’t always that easy to know if a food has added sugar or natural sugar. For restaurant foods, we may have the numbers, but not the detailed ingredients. For foods where we do have food labels, there are many foods that have both added sugar and natural sugar. We can’t really know exactly how much of each is in the food.
Another problem is that even if Weight Watchers thought it could adjust for the natural sugar, it would have to do this for each and every food. Besides the fact that this is time consuming in the extreme, it would effectively mean that we couldn’t calculate with any certainty the SmartPoints value for foods not in the database, such as foods made at home or those where we don’t have nutritional information. I liked a lot about the exchange program when I did Weight Watchers in the late 80s. But, if a food wasn’t in the Weight Watchers book of exchanges or I didn’t make it from scratch with common ingredients, then I had to estimate the exchanges. That took away a lot of certainty.
So, yes, while I think it would be great if Weight Watchers could have a formula that only considered added sugar or didn’t consider the saturated fats from chocolate, for example, I recognize that trying to do this would lead to inaccuracy since there would be estimating involved. This isn’t practical in a world where members do eat a variety of foods that aren’t in the Weight Watchers database.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good
Second, there is a limit to the amount of complexity that a formula can have to it while still being usable and customer friendly. Right now, Weight Watchers uses 4 factors to determine the SmartPoints value. PointsPlus used 4 factors as well (just different factors). Yes, you can plug in 3 other factors (total fat, total carbs, and fiber) that don’t matter to the formula. But, you don’t have to put in real numbers for those factors. You can zero them out on the mobile app. On the browser calculator, I can leave those fields blank. The handheld calculator you doesn’t include them at all and you only fill in the 4 relevant factors.
I remember when Weight Watchers moved from considering 3 factors (calories, fat and fiber) to considering 4 (fat, carbs, fiber and protein). People complained about moving from 3 to 4. I have no doubt that it might be more accurate to total healthfulness to consider many other factors than the 4 used by SmartPoints. For example, the Nuval Scoring System considers 30 nutrition factors to come up with a nutrition score for each food. I am sure that Weight Watchers could come up with something similar for weight loss, by having such a score then impact the number of points based upon calories. That is, come up with a base calories per point and then modify the points up or down based upon something like the Nuval Score of a food.
But, we come back to practicality and the fact we sometimes need to calculate points ourselves for foods that aren’t in the Weight Watchers database (or have been updated from what is in the database). Having to plug in 30 factors – even if we as consumers could even get that information – for each food to calculate a food would be unrealistic. It might be better in terms of accuracy, but if people won’t use it because it is too difficult or tedious then it doesn’t really help.
So, I think it is reasonable for Weight Watchers to decide to use 4 factors to determine SmartPoints value. I personally could live with 5 (I would add fiber probably), but it starts getting tedious very fast once you get beyond that.
What Are the Best Factors to Use in the SmartPoints Formula?
Looking at what is good, rather than trying to find perfection, we have to consider whether Weight Watchers has picked the best 4 factors to use.
Since Weight Watchers is a weight loss program, it is imperative that calories be one of the factors. Guiding us to a healthier diet is fine, but weight loss (and maintenance) are important. One approach is Simply Filing where you can eat a limited number of foods without counting SmartPoints for them, but all other foods have to fit within the now shrunken Weekly Points. But, in a program where you don’t have limited food lists, such as when you use SmartPoints, then calories must in my view be directly taken into account.
Beyond calories, Weight Watchers includes sugar, saturated fat, and protein. Protein lessens SmartPoints. It serves a role similar to that served by fiber in prior plans. That is, the protein in a food lessens the SmartPoints value. Due to the penalty on saturated fat, though, the protein that is most favorable in terms of SmartPoints is that which does not have saturated fat. In short, lean protein or vegetable protein. This is why lean chicken, turkey and fish become SmartPoints bargains. Protein in vegetables, such as in legumes, is still reasonable in SmartPoints value but the amount of protein is usually less in vegetable sources so that protein doesn’t reduce the SmartPoints value of the food quite as much.
In the SmartPoints Q&A in the weekly handout when Beyond the Scale came out, Weight Watchers stated that studies had shown the benefit of eating less sugar and saturated fat, and more protein. In discussing why the focus on protein, Weight Watchers said:
Protein helps you feel full, for starters. And this special nutrient helps repair tissues, maintain lean muscle, and aid hormone and enzyme function.
I know that while I was losing my weight, I did lose a lot of muscle (although much more fat). I think that had I eaten more protein while losing weight (and did more strength training) I wouldn’t be as skinny fat as I am now. I can understand why Weight Watchers would include protein as a factor.
There are people who for medical reasons have to limit the protein they eat. In that case, the member should consult with their doctor regarding their guidelines on eating protein.
And, then there are things that aren’t in the SmartPoints formula that others have raised as also being important to healthy eating. To a large extent I agree these things are important. The real question is whether our eating would be healthier if, say, Weight Watchers penalized them instead of sugar and saturated fat.
Other Factors Not Included in SmartPoints
Take trans fat for example. It is generally acknowledged that trans fats are harmful and more dangerous than other fats. So why doesn’t Weight Watchers penalize trans fats instead of saturated fats? I think is mostly because there are so few foods currently with trans fat in them that having this be part of the calculator wouldn’t make a difference on the vast majority of foods. And, trans fats are on the way out anyway. The FDA gave companies 3 years to remove partially hydrogenated oils (the main source of artificial trans fat in processed food) from food, so it will be gone by then. Many manufacturers are already removing trans fats. Consumption of trans fat has already decreased by 78 percent over the last decade or so. And the Grocery Manufacturers Association said that industry has already reduced trans fats in food by more than 86 percent.
Given this, Weight Watchers would get far less bang for its buck in putting trans fat into the calculator rather than saturated fat. Many, many more foods have saturated fat than have trans fat. That said, even though trans fat is not in the calculator, that doesn’t mean it is good to eat. We can each still read food labels and obtain nutritional information and can use that to avoid any food that has trans fat in it. Be aware, that a food can have trans fat in it and still show 0 on the food label as long as it doesn’t have more than half a gram of trans fat a serving. Look for partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredient list to find some hidden trans fat.
And, there are other things. Sodium isn’t part of the SmartPoints formula and neither is fiber. I saw someone ask the other day if that meant that it isn’t important any more to eat whole grains instead of refined grains. And, does that mean that the things that were in the Good Health Guidelines are no longer important? The simple answer to this is that the SmartPoints formula is meant to guide us to eating healthier. But, since it can’t include every possible factor in a healthy diet in a 4 factor formula, there are things that are important to healthy eating that aren’t addressed in the formula.
So, personally, when I eat grains I will still prefer to eat whole grains. I do wish this was still part of the formula. But, I can understand why Weight Watchers eliminated it. Weight Watchers is trying to keep the variables to a small number that they believe will have an impact on healthy eating. Another factor is that processed foods manufacturers have learned to game the system to some degree with fiber. I am sure we have all seen unhealthy foods that fiber has been added to in order to try to give it a healthy aura.
So, no, we can’t just eat by SmartPoints value and never consider anything else about the food. I pay attention to the sodium in food, I pay attention to the fiber in food and whether it is whole grain or refined grain.
The SmartPoints value of a food isn’t meant to tell you everything about healthy eating. I would certainly hope to see Weight Watchers in the weekly meeting and on its website still give nutrition suggestions. There are times, though, that I don’t agree with everything Weight Watchers suggests. For example, Weight Watchers has had recipes, for example, that have artificial sweeteners in them. In reality, the more I avoid highly processed foods the less I usually have to worry about things like high sodium, refined carbs or artificial ingredients.
So, SmartPoints are a tool, but aren’t the whole of healthy eating. If I see a food has an unexpectedly high value, that is a signal to me to pay attention to the food and figure out why the value is high. Maybe I will decide that the food has a bum rap (it has a natural sugar from vegetables, for example). But, maybe I will realize that food has hidden sugar or saturated fat in it and I will decide to make a different choice. Or, maybe I will have that cookie anyway, but I will do it with my eyes open.