Weight Watchers feels the pinch from rival diets

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Perhaps it has something to do with the cruel parody in Little Britain, where vicious Marjorie Dawes instructs her hapless Fat Fighters to eat nothing except dust.

Weight Watchers, a 40-year-old institution for women looking for moral support as they diet, is slimming down fast in the UK as its members desert.

With attendances down by 15 per cent in the past year, the organisation's members are being lured away by dieting programmes available online, or choosing to design diets for themselves using the bombardment of healthy eating messages from the Government and their GPs.

Many appear simply to be losing the will power to stick to Weight Watchers' bewildering system of calorie-counting points and lifestyle strictures.

Weight Watchers has helped millions of women since it started in the early 1960s when New Yorker Jean Nidetch invited friends to her home for coffee and to ask if they would join her in a new diet. The first UK meeting was held four years later and the company now hosts 7,000 meetings a week in this country, but attendances have fallen since it developed a new lifestyle programme with 10 "winning habits" of which healthy eating is just one.

Meanwhile, the "medicalisation" of weight loss has gathered pace, according to David Haslam, clinical director of the National Obesity Forum and a GP. The availability of weight-loss drugs such as Xenical and a national obesity register for patients being promoted by the Government is encouraging doctors to spend more time discussing weight loss with their charges, he said.

Weight Watchers has been caught off guard, believing that it could keep expanding as obesity levels soared in the West.

There were 6.4 million visits to Weight Watchers meetings around the UK in the first six months of this year, down 15 per cent on 2005. The results, matched by declining attendances across Europe, forced the US-based company to warn it wouldn't make its profit forecasts for the year.

And it has triggered hard thinking in the organisation about how to make its dieting and lifestyle strictures more easy to stick to. Linda Huett, chief executive of Weight Watchers International, promised a revamped, simpler programme would be launched next year, but her focus in the meantime is to make sure that those who do attend meetings keep on coming.

"The more meetings that members attend, the more successful they are at losing weight," she said. "What we are trying to do is change people's relationship with Weight Watchers from a temporary diet into an ongoing attempt to institute healthy lifestyles that are going to control weight and sustain weight loss."

Dr Haslam said that could prove difficult as the alternatives to Weight Watchers proliferate. "There is no shortage of people who would benefit from Weight Watchers," he said. "But there are new hi-tech members of the weight-loss industry now, especially for men, who wouldn't be seen dead at a Weight Watchers meeting but will say anything to a nurse online."

The regime

Weight Watchers meetings are run by leaders who lead by example. He or, usually, she must have successfully lost weight on the Weight Watchers programme.

New members agree a healthy goal weight with the leader, which will be based on achieving a body mass index between 20 and 25. The BMI is a person's weight in relation to their height.

All new members must be at least 10lb over a BMI of 20 in order to join Weight Watchers. Every member is weighed individually and confidentially, to measure their progress.

The Weight Watchers points system limits saturated fat and calorie intake, as part of a balanced diet.