This tiny icon is Weight Watchers' solution to a key problem with eating healthy

When’s the last time you looked at a food’s nutrition label
before you downed its contents?

More importantly, did the mishmash of black-and-white numbers, letters, and scientific lingo mean anything to you?

If the answer is “never” and “no,” you’re not alone.

Nutrition labels, which haven’t been updated since 1994, are notoriously confusing. But if you’re looking to lose weight, the information they include — from calories to sugar, fat, and protein — is important.

Instead of trying to break it all down for consumers, Weight Watchers made up its own system instead.

That’s what that tiny blue icon in the corner of many packaged foods refers to. It tells you how many points a food has based on four key things you’ll find on a standard nutrition label: calories, fat, sugar, and protein. You don’t have to worry about the rest, like the oft-ignored part where it says “standard serving size.”

What the heck is a ‘standard serving size’?

In FDA parlance, the “standard serving size” section towards the top of any nutrition label refers to something called a “reference amount customarily consumed per eating occasion,” or the amount of a food that the average person would typically eat in one sitting. The problem with this is that people tend to eat far more than the amount specified on the label. For reference, a “standard serving size” of Oreo cookies is two cookies. That’s right, two.

In an interview last year, Marion Nestle, New York University professor of food science and author of the book “Food Politics,” told Business Insider that this section is one of the biggest problems with current food labels, since it’s “completely out of line with what people actually eat.” An FDA-sanctioned “serving size” of ice cream, Nestle pointed out, is just half a cup.

“Who sits down with a container of ice cream and measures out a half of a cup? No one. You’re eating a cup or a bowl of ice cream,” said Nestle.

Fda nutrition labelFDACurrent nutrition label (left); new 2018 label (right).

In response to these and other concerns, the FDA announced its first major overhaul of nutrition information in May, which goes into effect in 2018. But even the new designs, which increase the serving size and include a line for “added sugars” leave a lot of room for improvement, Nestle wrote on her “Food Politics” blog.

Scrapping calories, serving sizes, and fat for points

Rather than trying to explain nutrition labels to its customers, Weight Watchers came up with their own system for easily evaluating the nutritional makeup of foods. It’s called the points system.

Although its exact name and calculation system has changed several times since it was first introduced in 1997, the gist remains the same. With the point system, every food you eat is allotted a certain number of points based on its sugar, fat, protein, and calorie content. As part of the program, you’re assigned a daily and a weekly points goal based on your current weight and how much you want to lose. Nutritious, filling foods get fewer points while junk foods with empty calories get more. Fruits and veggies are zero-point foods.

“We’re solving for the complexity of the nutrition label,” Dr. Gary Foster, Weight Watchers’ chief scientific officer and a professor of psychology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, told Business Insider.

Dozens of other weight loss apps and programs now use various versions of point systems to try and help you lose weight. Unlike Weight Watchers, however, which has been around for decades and benefits from having thousands of participants, most of these programs haven’t been rigorously studied.

Does it work?

The short answer is yes, Weight Watchers works. Several comprehensive, large-scale studies suggest the program can help some people lose weight and keep it off. When researchers compare weight loss programs, Weight Watchers is often among those recommended as effective.

A randomised controlled trial funded by Weight Watchers and published in the American Journal of Medicine in 2013, for example, showed that people in the study who used Weight Watchers lost more weight than a comparison group of people who tried to shed pounds on their own. For a 2008 study in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers (including one from Weight Watchers) studied more than 600 Weight Watchers participants and followed up with them one year, two years, and five years after they completed the program. A year after they’d finished the program, close to 60% were still within 5 pounds of their goal weight. At two years, 45% were still in this category, and at five years 37% were.

Still, research suggests that there’s more to the program than just its points system. Its meetings, app, and other online tools appear to help people lose weight too.

That Weight Watchers-sponsored study from 2013, for example, found that people who tried to count points on their own without making use of other parts of the program — like attending its meetings or using its app — didn’t lose as much weight as people who participated in all of them, although certainly that’s the outcome the company might have been hoping for.

But, if you’re trying to lose weight and you’ve been struggling with nutrition labels, the key takeaway is this: You’re not alone! Nutrition is complicated, and fortunately there are tools that can help. Evaluating foods with a point system is just one of them.

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