It is almost a year since SmartPoints and the entire Beyond the Scale Program debuted. This is a good time to ask: Good or Bad? It is time to assess the new program (well, not so new now).
When the new Beyond the Scale program started I was favorably disposed to it. I liked that SmartPoints discouraged eating sugar. Lots of people liked the changes. Others hated them. In fact, during this year one of my post popular posts which has gotten a lot of search traffic is What To Do If You Hate SmartPoints.
During the past year the SmartPoints part of the program has stayed the same, but there were some changes to how FitPoints were used. Initially, Weight Watchers discouraged swapping FitPoints for food. You could do it, but the powers that be didn’t really want you to do it. Then, a few months in they changed to a more neutral position on swapping FitPoints. They also instituted a baseline before you could swap FitPoints for food. Basically you were supposed to earn about 3 FitPoints (roughly 3000 steps) in a day before you could swap additional FitPoints for food.
So, 11 months into the new Weight Watchers program – is it good or bad?
Good Parts of SmartPoints and Beyond the Scale
SmartPoints encourages healthier eating. I firmly believe that SmartPoints encourages healthier eating. I have heard and read tons of comments about the “sugar penalty” on SmartPoints (I’ve heard less about the saturated fat penalty). The formula is designed to heavily penalize the eating of sugar (through assigning more SmartPoints to high sugar foods) and to moderately penalize the eating of saturated fat, while encouraging the eating of protein. While I personally tend to believe a calorie is a calorie in terms of weight loss, I don’t think a calorie is a calorie in terms of healthfulness of eating. And some people have reported having more cravings if they eat a lot of sugar. By causing foods with high sugar and saturated fat to cost more SmartPoints, Weight Watchers encourages you to instead eat more foods that are lower in SmartPoints. If I can have a high sugar snack that is 6 SmartPoints and another snack is 3 SmartPoints (with less sugar but the same calories), then I am probably more likely to eat the lower point snack. And, that lower point snack is perhaps more healthy for me to eat.
One of my biggest issues with PointsPlus and really, all the Weight Watchers points based programs, was that there was no limitation on eating junk food and points varied almost entirely based upon calorie count. Yes, with PointsPlus foods that had fiber and protein got a little bit of a bonus that helped with the points and fats and carbs were a little bit disadvantaged, but it was very mild. If you knew the calorie count of a food, you could usually estimate the PointsPlus and not be off by more than a point or so. The result is that you could eat absolutely horribly in terms of healthy eating and still be “on program” with Weight Watchers. Yes, the Good Health Guidelines existed but those weren’t firm rules (see that word “guidelines”) and many people just ignored them. And, even more to the point, you could follow the GHG and still have room for a lot of unhealthy junk.
Back in the day, when Weight Watchers used an exchange program, you couldn’t do that. If I wanted cake or candy, I had to use optional calories for them and I didn’t get many of those every week. I couldn’t use my bread exchanges or my protein exchanges or my milk exchanges or whatever for a piece of candy. So, I was limited in the amount of outright junk that I could eat. All of that went away with the points programs.
SmartPoints tried to fight back against the idea that you could eat as much as you wanted of less healthy foods. The program doesn’t explicitly limit the amount of sugar-laden food you can eat. But, if you eat a lot of that food you will run out of points fast and will presumably find that unsustainable and will start to choose lower point foods that are better for you.
I think the goal of SmartPoints of encouraging the eating of less sugar and saturated fat is overall a good one.
More daily points for some people. Many people found that they get more daily points on SmartPoints (note not everyone got more daily points). Many women — particularly those who are short, older, or have less to lose — are assigned to eat the minimum daily points. It was 26 on PointsPlus and is 30 on SmartPoints. That is an increase of 4 daily points a day. Take myself. In losing mode, I got 26 daily PointsPlus along with 49 Weekly Points. With SmartPoints, I got 30 daily points and 28 Weekly Points. Even for many people not at the minimum, they get more daily points with SmartPoints.
Why is this good for some people? Overwhelmingly, I hear people say that they try to avoid eating Weekly points. Many think it is all but cheating to eat Weekly points. I don’t happen to think that and have always eaten a goodly number of my Weekly points. But, I have seen people who would get terribly hungry eating their minimum, but felt they were a failure if they ate any Weekly points. If they gave in to it, they felt guilty. If they didn’t, they might fall off the program because they were too hungry. Giving people additional daily points (often coupled with fewer weekly points) gave them permission to eat more food each day and could potentially help with hunger without then having to use Weekly points.
Variable Weekly Points. With PointsPlus, I got 49 Weekly Points. So did my husband who is larger than I am. So, did the member who was 40 years younger than me and 6 inches taller. That really didn’t make sense. Daily points vary based upon things like age, weight and gender. That makes sense. But, it would also make sense for weekly points to vary based upon those things. When I weighed 200 pounds on PointsPlus I got 26 Daily points and 49 Weekly Points. When I weighed 146 pounds I got the same. That number was never changing (except if I went on maintenance). That made no sense. One reason it was so hard to lose weight as I got closer to goal was that my points stayed the same even though my weight had gone down so I was burning fewer calories. They couldn’t really reduce my daily points. Historically, Weight Watchers has always tried to set its formula so that you eat at least 1000 calories a day. They wouldn’t cut daily points where people would eat less than that. And, during PointsPlus they didn’t cut Weekly points either. They could have done that, though, without jeopardizing the minimum 1000 calories a day thing. So, yes, it makes sense to have Weekly SmartPoints vary.
Weight Loss May Be Better For Some People
I noticed this on the front page when I logged in to Weight Watchers:
I found a little more about this inside the site. This is apparently based upon new members on the program after the first 2 months compared to those on the old program. This is indeed good. We join Weight Watchers to lose weight. And, if we lose more weight on SmartPoints than PointsPlus then that is a good thing. But, it has to be kept in context. This covers only the first 2 months. And, it is only people who join and continue to weigh in for 2 months. In other words, it doesn’t tell you anything about people who drop out. More importantly, it doesn’t tell you if more people drop out with one program than the other program. And, it says nothing about sustainability. One of the complaints I have heard from some on SmartPoints was that it was not long term sustainable for them. So, yes, this is a good result. But, it doesn’t answer all questions.
FitPoints Baseline. I loved it when they added in the FitPoints baseline a few months after Beyond the Scale came out. When I had had the Weight Watchers activity monitor there had been a baseline, but it hadn’t be clear what you had to do to meet it. I like how they have made it clear how you get to your baseline. And, I think this helps to make it safer to swap FitPoints for food.
Good Health Guidelines going away. This is actually on both my list of good and bad parts. I will talk about the bad part in that section. The good part was that I didn’t totally agree with the GHG. I particularly had difficulty meeting the one for milk servings. I am a little lactose intolerant and could drink the milk they wanted. It was hard to meet the guideline through eating cheese and still stay within my points. I am glad that Weight Watchers is no longer pushing dairy foods.
Bad Parts of SmartPoints and Beyond the Scale
Calories per SmartPoints Vary Too Much. This is the flipside negative of having SmartPoints varying based upon things other than calories. Let me give an example of 3 foods that are each 120 calories:
Skinless Chicken Breast – 1 SmartPoint – this is because this has no sugar, little saturated fat and lots of protein
Kay’s Natural Protein Cinnamon Almonds Cookie Bites – 3 SmartPoints – this has 12g of protein and not a lot of sugar or saturated fats.
Sheila G Brownie Brittle – 6 SmartPoints – This has 14g of sugar with some saturated fat and almost no protein
Let’s imagine I ate one of those foods for all my daily points, how many calories would that be?
Skinless Chicken Breast – 30 Daily SmartPoints would be 2218 calories
Kay’s Natural Cinnamon Almonds Cookie Bites – 30 Daily SmartPoints would be 1250 calories
Sheila G Brownie Brittle – 30 Daily SmartPoints would be 600 calories
So, 30 SmartPoints of each of these food ranges from 600 calories to 2218 calories! That is a huge range. I posted awhile ago about the SmartPoints formula. Basically, Weight Watchers starts out with a base of 3 SmartPoints per 100 calories. Then, you add about 1 SmartPoint per 4g of saturated fat. And, you add 1 SmartPoint her 8g of sugar. And, then you subtract 1 SmartPoint per 10g of protein. Take the Cookie Bites. 120 calories is roughly 4 SmartPoints. It doesn’t get anything added for sugar or saturated fat, but it loses a point due to the protein.
As I talked about in the section on good parts of SmartPoints, I like that Weight Watchers is encouraging healthier eating. Disadvantaging saturated fat and sugar (i.e. making them cost more) while advantaging protein (i.e. making it cost less) makes absolute sense from the standpoint of trying to influence the type of foods that we eat. You make something more expensive and perhaps people will choose to go for a cheaper alternative. Or, at the very least, they will be limited in how much they can spend.
So, yes, I understand what Weight Watchers is doing. And, in many ways I approve of it. I don’t think Weight Watchers should be totally agnostic about what we eat. If it was totally agnostic, it could have us simply count calories. Weight Watchers wants to encourage us to have a healthy lifestyle and that involves encouraging us to eat foods that are healthy.
And, yet, Weight Watchers is for most us primarily a tool for weight loss. No one joins Weight Watchers for any reason other than to lose weight. And, for most of us, part of what attracts us to Weight Watchers is that no food is forbidden. I personally find that I do better if no food is forbidden, although my rules result in me limiting some foods.
The problem with SmartPoints is that for some foods the points value of the food causing the SmartPoints value of the food to be very out of whack with what it would be based upon calories alone. This can cause some people to eat too many calories and others to eat too few.
One of the most common complaints I heard from people early on was that they ran out of SmartPoints too soon during the day and were starving. Some people reported that they were eating 30 SmartPoints and it was well under 1000 calories (of course, they could get up to 1000 calories with 0 point fruit and veggies). Now, it is easy to say that they were probably eating high sugar, high saturated fat food. And, that they shouldn’t do it.
But, that doesn’t change the fact that you can be totally on program, eating 30 SmartPoints and end up the day well under 1000 calories. And, if you eat out you can blow through that shockingly quickly. I lost over 60 pounds occasionally eating a Cinnamon Crunch bagel at Panera. It is 17 SmartPoints for 430 calories. That is over half my daily SmartPoints. Under PointsPlus it was only 11 PointsPlus. That was less than half of my 26 daily PointsPlus. Now, this is not a food I would often eat. It has a ton of sugar. But, I could do it reasonably and occasionally on PointsPlus. If I do it on SmartPoints, I will either end the day eating under 1000 calories (if I eat no weekly SmartPoints) or will eat reasonably the rest of the day and will end up eating a bunch of my 28 weekly SmartPoints.
So, with the formula, people who do eat more sugar or saturated fat — even if not everyday — can end up not eating enough calories if they don’t go into weekly SmartPoints. This is made worse by the fact that certain condiment like foods are now a point when they were zero points on Points Plus. For example, I make my own salad dressing. I usually eat 1 T. of balsamic vinegar which is 14 calories. It was 0 points under PointsPlus. It is now 1 SmartPoint. For many people, these little things add up resulting in a lot of things that used to be 0 points now being a point when the calories from them are small.
But, the problem is not just with some foods having SmartPoints values that are too high in relationship to the calories in the food. Some people have the opposite problem. Despite my sometimes like sugary bagels or eating Brownie Brittle, I don’t eat much added sugar. Rarely do I exceed 30g in a day and most days I am under 20g of added sugar. I don’t eat beef and my saturated food totals are usually low as well. And, when I was exercising regularly and doing strength training, I really tried to eat quite a bit of protein every day.
If you eat low sugar, low saturated fat, and higher protein, you can end up eating a lot more calories than you might expect. Early on I struggled to get to 30 SmartPoints. For some people what had been 26 PointsPlus was now 30 SmartPoints or even vastly more. For me, 26 PointsPlus was often 26 or 27 SmartPoints. I immediately had to eat more food each day to meet my 30 Daily SmartPoints. There was a day, for example, when I ate 29 daily points — not even to the minimum — and ate 1341 calories!
It is not unusual at all that for me to get to 30 SmartPoints I have to eat over 1300 calories. And, I eat 0 point foods as well. So I can be between 1400 and 1500 calories and haven’t even touched weekly points. So, days I eat at home I can easily get to 1400 calories even though I only ate 30 SmartPoints. And, then there are days I go out and eat some weekly points and eat 1600 or 1700 calories. But, I don’t burn that many calories. When I am not exercising – like I couldn’t do while recovering from surgery – I will burn about 1300 calories on a day that I stay at home. Now, if I go walking I will maybe burn another 100 calories which gets me to 1400 calories. If I go for a walk and go grocery shopping I will get closer to 1500 calories. What that means is that I am not going to lose weight if I eat 30 SmartPoints a day plus any part of my 28 weekly points.
The point is that 30 SmartPoints can be way too few calories eaten for some people, but it can equate to too many calories for other people. And, that variation is based upon what you eat. If 30 SmartPoints can vary from 600 calories to over 2200 calories that is a problem. If we eat really “healthy” as encouraged by Weight Watchers we may not have a calorie deficit and won’t lose weight. If we eat higher sugar/saturated fat then we may lose, but may not be eating enough calories and may find it difficult to sustain the program long term.
SmartPoints can result in choosing foods that aren’t the best. When Weight Watchers discourages certain foods and makes the point value difference for the same number of calories so extreme, people can come up with solutions that may not be the best. I am sure Weight Watchers probably wants people to get fat that isn’t saturated, less added sugar, and more lean protein. The best way to do that is to eat whole foods that are not heavily processed. But, things don’t always work out that way when you try to control points.
For some people, the new program hasn’t necessarily resulting in eating better whole foods. It has led instead to eating more foods with artificial sweeteners. Or, maybe, continuing to eat higher sugar foods but just not eating enough calories. And, then, sometimes quitting when it got to be unsustainable.
The other thing is that Weight Watchers hasn’t considered the logical result of their discouraging eating of sugar and saturated fat. If you really get gung ho on that then you end up like me — eating too many calories because you are eating too healthfully. I can honestly say that there are days I was supposed to eat more to get to 30 daily points but I knew that a healthy snack would end up with me eating too many calories, so I intentionally chose a higher sugar snack that was fewer calories. Yes, I ate something with higher sugar so I could eat something with higher points that was lower calories.
Or, take my balsamic vinegar. Under PointsPlus, I made my own vinaigrette salad dressing. It was a couple of points for olive oil and nothing for the vinegar. Great. Now, that same dressing is 3 SmartPoints since there is a point for the tablespoon of vinegar even though it is only 14 calories. I have found myself tending to buy processed salad dressings that are low or no fat and that are 2 points.
Or the person who eats a lot of tuna because it is low in points. But, they forget that the calories still count. The reality is that it is human nature to try to lower the points we eat. And, sometimes, we can do that by eating foods that really aren’t the best choices.
Good Health Guidelines going away. I said this was both good and bad. I didn’t agree with all of the GHG, so that is good. Weight Watchers position was that these were not needed since the program itself would guide you to healthier eating. That is, by making high sugar foods so punishing to get, then you would eat less sugary foods and would naturally eat lower point foods. At first, I thought that was true. And, I think it is true for many people. They have slowly adjusted what they eat and the adjustments have been to eating healthier foods. But. as mentioned above, not all choices are the best. And some people will keep eating high sugar/saturated fat foods and just end up eating too few calories.
I understand Weight Watchers dilemma. It doesn’t want to tell us we can only spend X number of points on cake or cookies or pies. As I mentioned, back in the exchange days, I could have one piece of chocolate cake in a week. After that, I was out of optional calories. I couldn’t use my exchanges for cake. That actually worked pretty well. I could eat cake if I wanted to. But, I couldn’t have it every day.
Weight Watchers doesn’t want to tell us directly that we shouldn’t have cake every day. Instead, they make it so costly that we just won’t do it. I understand why they do that, but you end up with the situation that 120 calories of food can be anything from 1 point to 6 points. Weight Watchers wants to use point count as the only tool to encourage us to eat more healthfully. They don’t even want to tell us through explicit “guidelines” that we should eat more of X and less of Y. The certainly aren’t going to tell us that we aren’t on program if we eat more than X pieces of cake in a week.
They want to be more indirect. But, when they get rid of even the guidelines, you end up with people thinking that anything is OK, so long as they stay within their points. Loading up on high protein foods and ending up with a calorie surplus is fine so long as I don’t go over my points. Eating tons of candy and other junk is fine even if I end up eating only 700 calories so long as I met my minimum number of daily points. Eating refined grains is great and there is no reason to prefer whole grains since the points are mostly the same. This is where having the GHG in the past was helpful. It at least gave people an idea of where to start on healthy eating. This is particularly true since SmartPoints can’t address every aspect of healthy eating. It doesn’t address fiber, for example, or why whole grains are better.
Not Enough Weekly Points Limits Flexibility. I do theoretically like the fact that the weekly points vary based upon age, gender, and weight. This makes sense to me. But, it has been entirely frustrating to me. My minimum daily points are 30. As mentioned, I sometimes struggle to get there. I can eat something that was 26 PointsPlus and is more than 1000 calories, but it is still not 30 daily points.
On other hand, it seems like I can blow through those 28 weekly points in a nanosecond. This particularly happens when I eat out. That food tends to be higher calorie, higher sugar, and sometimes higher saturated fat than what I eat at home. It is very, very easy to blow through the 28 weekly points.
There are days that I don’t get to 30 pounds and I don’t worry about it if my overall calorie count is over 1000 calories and it would have been at least 26 PointsPlus. But, it is annoying to go over my weekly points when I had days during the week I was under 30 SmartPoints.
As a member at goal, I can put myself in maintenance mode. The default is 36 daily points and 28 weekly points. Weight Watchers does let you modify that, but within limits. That is, my daily points can’t be lower than 30 and my weekly points can’t be more than 42. That is something, but I wish there was more flexibility.
While I like that the default daily points are higher (since some people refuse to eat any weekly points), I wish I could lower my daily points below 30 (but not below 26) and that I could up my weekly points.
I can do that to a limited extent on maintenance. When I was in maintenance mode, I set my daily points to 34 (instead of 36) and made my weekly points 42 (the maximum). I wish I could do that in losing mode. But, to make it work, I would have to be able to reduce daily points below 30.
So, Yay or Nay?
Honestly, I just want to punt on this. But, I know you want an opinion. On the one hand, I applaud Weight Watchers for recognizing that eating healthy is an important goal and for devising a formula so that people will think twice or thrice about whether to eat that high sugar/saturated fat food. SmartPoints penalizes food that I tend to think should be penalized and rewards food that I want to be encouraged to eat. And, if Weight Watchers can help people to both lose more weight and to eat more healthfully, then that it is a great thing.
Even without the Good Health Guidelines, I think SmartPoints and the Beyond the Scale program, do more to encourage healthy eating than did PointsPlus, even with the Good Health Guidelines. And, at least in the first 2 months, Weight Watchers says people lose 15% more weight. And, if you lose more weight in that period of time, then maybe you stay with the program longer and maybe it means that people are able to follow it and lose weight.
But, on that other hand, I can’t help but feel that the tool being used by Weight Watchers to cause changes in what we eat is one that is imperfect at best. I have found myself more and more paying less and less attention to SmartPoints. I pay more attention to calories. Some weeks my calories are fine, but I ate more higher point foods and I find that I have exceeded my SmartPoints. At other times, my daily points are fine, but MFP tells me I ate too many calories for that day. And, I wonder about those who have quit. Those who found it too punishing to spend 1 point for a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar or whatever. Those who starved on 30 daily points because they were penalized so heavily for sugar — including natural sugar. Those who dutifully ate 30 daily points and didn’t lose any weight because they were eating enough protein and low enough sugar that their calories eaten were too high.
I guess in the end I would say that I overall like SmartPoints and think it is an improvement over PointsPlus. But, I would like to see Weight Watchers adjust the penalty a bit. Way back in the original points days, points were based upon calories, fat and fiber. People soon found that some high fiber foods had 0 or 1 points even though they had plenty of calories. Weight Watchers changed that. They eventually capped the number of grams of fiber that would reduce the points value of the food. There was still a points reduction to eating foods high in fiber, but it wasn’t ridiculous.
Currently, I think that some high protein/low saturated foods have point counts that are too low. See boneless chicken breasts as I mentioned above. On the other hand, I don’t think 14 calories of balsamic vinegar needs to be a point. And, yes, I think 120 calories of Kay’s Cookie Bites should be a little bit lower in points than 120 calories of Brownie Brittle. The Cookie Bites have protein, while the Brownie Brittle has sugar. But, the Brownie Brittle has twice the points of the Cookie Bites and that seems out of whack to me.
So, maybe the chicken should be 2 points and the Cookie Bites should stay at 3 and the Brownie Brittle should be 4 points. That would seem more realistic to me. It would still encourage people but not be so extreme that it resulted in people eating too few calories or too many calories. It would be more of a nudge than was PointsPlus, but would the points value for 120 calories of food would have a narrower range. Of course, that isn’t the program we have. Given what we do have, I think SmartPoints is better than PointsPlus, but I can also see why some could conclude otherwise.