“They’re not practicing what they preached”: WeightWatchers is shifting into weight loss drugs

When WeightWatchers was originally conceived, it was envisioned as a weight loss company that meshed support groups and an intensive diet plan into one cohesive program. At the forefront of the company was something called the “Prudent Diet,” which had been developed in the 1950s by Dr. Norman Jolliffe. The diet called for fish five times a week, eating liver once a week, two pieces of bread and two glasses of skim milk a day along with an abundance of fruits and vegetables. Alcohol, sweets and foods rich in fats were prohibited. All portions of foods were also encouraged to be weighed before eating.

Although the diet proved effective, it failed to provide any sort of mental support for its followers. That’s where WeightWatchers thrived — in providing those seeking to lose weight with the means, encouragement and strength they needed to attain their personal goals.

In 2018, WeightWatchers abandoned its weight loss motto and rebranded to “WW” to center on its new mission promoting overall health and wellness. But weight loss seemed to still be the company’s primary focus as it targeted a more vulnerable demographic. That year, WW came under fire for teasing a free weight-loss program for teens ages 13 to 17. Although that idea was tabled, WW announced a new mobile weight-loss app for children ages 8 and up called Kurbo by WW shortly afterwards.

“The name is WeightWatchers, not Health Enhancers,” wrote dietician Rebecca Scritchfield for The Washington Post at the time. “The second the focus turns to weight, the potential for mind and body damage begins.”

Unfortunately, WW hasn’t done much to redeem itself in recent years. The company is now entering the weight loss drug business, much to the dismay of many who have stood by its once-revered principles.

Specifically, WW is embracing blockbuster weight-loss drugs like Wegovy and Ozempic. As explained by Axios, the initiative “illustrates the way obesity has come to be viewed as a chronic illness treatable by drugs that could account for tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars of sales within a decade.” Investors, expectedly, are elated. But that can’t be said for customers, many of whom feel deceived.

“WeightWatchers has kicked us to the curb,” one 15-year member told Bloomberg. 

Others echoed similar sentiments, claiming WW ditched its message of self-restraint and behavioral change for the quick solution of weight-loss medication.

“They’re not practicing what they preached… and now all of a sudden there’s a drug involved,” said another WW member during an April meeting, per Insider.

Earlier this year, WW International Inc. shut down thousands of in-person meeting locations and acquired telemedicine startup Sequence for $132 million. Sequence connects its patients with doctors who can prescribe GLP-1 drugs like Wegovy and Ozempic — a diabetes medication that gained popularity online and among celebrities as an anti-obesity drug. 

Although the acquisition garnered ardent backlash from current WW members, Goldman Sachs analysts predicted “that the move toward weight-loss drugs could save the 60-year-old company from financial collapse,” according to Insider. Analysts estimated that the company could generate $455 million in new revenue through an extra half million subscribers by 2025.

Additionally, WW is hoping to persuade Medicare to cover the medications for weight loss, Axios reported. If that comes to fruition in the future, Medicare’s coverage of anti-obesity medications (AOMs) would “increase overall federal spending,” congressional scorekeepers said in October. 

“Right now, these medications, as part of Medicare Part D, are in the same category as hair-loss meds,” WW CEO Sima Sistani said at the annual HLTH conference in Las Vegas. “That’s what I’m talking about. It’s trying to shift the conversation from vanity and a preoccupation within this to actual health.”

Want more great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food’s newsletter, The Bite.

Many health experts, however, are concerned about AOMs, especially in the wake of new reports claiming that the drugs may place patients at risk of three rare, but severe, stomach conditions. The drugs also put patients at an increased risk of stomach paralysis and inflammatory diseases like pancreatitis and certain types of bowel obstruction, according to a study published in the scientific journal JAMA.

“Experts caution that there still isn’t enough data about how these drugs work long term and in certain populations, which could ultimately affect the market for them,” Axios wrote in July. Experts also warned that the drugs could cause patients above the age of 65 to lose too much muscle mass, per the New York Times.

Ozempic, in particular, remains a topic of concern within the health field, especially after it emerged as a kind-of cultural phenomenon. Unlike most AOMs, Ozempic has become popular among people who aren’t obese but are looking to shed a few pounds. That, in turn, has raised concerns about drug abuse and increased usage of over-the-counter laxatives, also known as “budget Ozempic.”

That being said, WW is determined about offering access to anti-obesity meds. Perhaps only time will tell if the move will actually save the company or ruin it for good.

Read more

about the Ozempic craze: