The Original Weight Watchers Plan

Many times I've heard -- and maybe you have, too -- "Forget that crazy low-carb stuff, I'm going on Weight Watchers, and learn how to eat a healthy diet." Personally, I have little patience for the Weight Watchers points system, and no belief that it's inherently healthy. So far as I can tell, it's an algorithm for calculating how much junk you can eat and still lose some weight.

They did have a "Core" program I thought well of; my sister has done very well on the Core plan. It consists of a group of foods that are "core" -- all lean meats, poultry and fish, all fruits and vegetables, all fat-free dairy, a little olive oil, a very few grain products (the only ones I'm aware of are barley, brown rice, and unflavored oatmeal) -- which the member may eat freely, till "satisfied but not stuffed." Apparently the core foods were chosen for nutritional value, satiety, calorie count, and -- and this is interesting -- their lack of binge-worthiness. The dieter is also allowed 35 points per week to spend on non-core foods; my sister spends several of hers on a glass of red wine with supper. The Core program has gone away, though my sister says that the core foods have been relabeled "filling foods", and there is a suggestion of those who find the points system hard to follow or ineffective relying largely on those foods, with 35 points a week, so the idea remains.

But where did the Weight Watchers program start? I happen to know, because I was on Weight Watchers at the age of 11, which would have been 1969. The company was founded in 1963, so those were early days. I happen to have my mother's old Weight Watchers cookbook, the original 1966 edition, which includes the original plan. For daily intake, a woman was allowed:

Breakfast: 1 egg or 1 ounce hard cheese or 2 ounces fish or 1/4 cup cottage or pot cheese
1 slice bread, either enriched or whole wheat (This was back in the day when "enriched" bread was considered the nutritional equal of whole grain. No rolls, bagels, buscuits muffins, crackers, cereals, or special breads were allowed.)

Luncheon: 4 ounces fish or lean meat or poultry, or 2/3 cup cottage cheese or pot cheese or 4 ounces farmer cheese or 2 ounces hard cheese or 2 eggs.
All you want of unlimited vegetables
1 slice bread

Dinner: 6 ounces lean meat or fish or poultry
1 portion limited vegetables
All you want of unlimited vegetables

Must be taken at some time during the day: A total of three fruits, one of them an orange or grapefruit
2 cups skim milk or buttermilk or 1 cup skimmed evaporated milk

May be taken at any time of day: Any unlimited foods, which included many vegetables, calorie free beverages, and bouillon.

It is interesting to note that the permitted fruits were limited to
1 apple
1/2 cantaloupe
1/2 grapefruit
2" wedge of honeydew
1 orange
1/4 medium-sized pineapple

Specifically excluded were bananas, cherries, watermelon, grapes, and all dried fruits. Bananas are among the carbiest and highest-calorie fruits, and of course dried fruits might as well be candy. Watermelon is also fairly high carb. But I wonder about the exclusion of cherries and grapes; I wonder if it had to do with the fact that it's easy to just keep popping them in your mouth.

Interesting, too, is the list of limited vegetables:

bamboo shoots
brussels sprouts
green beans (mature) (I assume this meant with fully-developed beans inside)
oyster plant
squash (yellow) (I assume they meant winter squashes)
tomato juice

Most of these are among the carbier vegetables, certainly higher carb than, say, lettuce or celery. The unlimited vegetables are all very low carb, including the leafy stuff like lettuce, cabbage and spinach, cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus, etc.

Fish was to be eaten at least five times per week, liver at least once a week, and beef. frankfurters, lamb, and dark meat turkey no more than three times per week.

It appears to me from this that the original WW program was largely a low calorie diet focused on real, whole foods, and that there was an emphasis not only on calorie and fat restriction, but also on carbohydrate restriction. There was sufficient protein, too -- about 80-100 grams per day. I've worked out a few sample days, and and even with that bread I came up with no more than 100 grams of usable carb -- not super-low carb, but a whole lot lower carb than the average American eats. Too, except for the bread those would be carbs with a pretty gentle blood sugar impact, not as likely as some to spike blood sugar and cause hunger. Furthermore, the program required you to eat that bread at meals, with a protein source, which would gentle the blood sugar curve.

There is, of course, a serious lack of binge-able carbs like chips, candy, cookies and cereal.

It's interesting to note that the inspiration for the original WW plan was Dr. Norman Joliffe's "Prudent Diet," one of the first diets touted as being "heart-healthy" -- this was at the very beginning of the "fat is bad for your heart" craze. The Weight Watchers website specifically states the the protein fraction was reduced and the carbohydrate fraction increased during the '70s, in response to government dictates that fat was bad and carbohydrate good. It was not until the late '90s that the points system was initiated, allowing virtually any food, no matter how nutritionally vacant (and encouraging some, like WW desserts, which are nutritional garbage -- low calorie nutritional garbage, but nutritional garbage nonetheless.)

But there's still a clear echo, in the original plan, of the common wisdom of the previous century, that if you wanted to lose weight, you needed to axe the carbs.

It might be added that I think the best idea Weight Watchers has come up with is the support group meetings. Correspondence from readers tells me that overwhelmingly those who feel supported -- either by their family, by a "diet buddy," or by seeking out internet support -- are the ones most likely to succeed long-term. Perhaps we need a diet club based on a low carb diet? There's a business idea there, I suspect.