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An Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey

AP Photo

Dear Ms. Winfrey,

Long time readers, first time writers.

We are two young women running a company together. Long hours, financial stress, and rigors of running a business have taken their toll on us...we know you understand. That’s why, one month ago, we committed to taking better care of ourselves by taking the time to exercise, prepare healthy foods, and practice mindfulness; all activities you’ve been telling us to do for years.

We’ve watched you on your journey and admired how open you have been about your triumphs, trials, and tribulations. We have seen you struggle and seen you succeed. You’ve brought hundreds of millions of people along with you.

Recently you joined the “not just the president, also a member” club by buying a ten percent stake in Weight Watchers. Opinions abound. One journalist asked why you are still trying to sell women weight loss self-help and questioned whether Weight Watchers was making a calculated move to compete with free and low-cost calorie counting apps. Forbes was nearly giddy when they told readers Weight Watchers stock had soared more than 100% since announcing your stake and (wink, wink) reminded investors your deal is inked to last five years. What’s that, Forbes, sell in four and a half years? Isn’t healthy eating supposed to last a lifetime?

The point is, the media is abuzz with people excited/angry/suspicious/enthralled by your new venture. There is no question you can help Weight Watchers shareholders make some money. You are a savvy businesswoman and an undisputed cultural powerhouse. Our question is, will you use your enormous influence to help shift Weight Watchers away from its outdated, chemical-heavy dieting empire, and towards a nutritious, healthy lifestyle brand? We know you’ve thought about this. When you went on Ellen you told her your goal was to bring a healthier, more holistic approach to Weight Watchers. We want to hear more about how you’re going to turn that tanker around.

As it stands today, Weight Watchers is a behemoth, controlling nearly 45% of the dieting market according to the Annals of Internal Medicine. A recent study published noted that Weight Watchers and its competitors “were associated with high costs, high attrition rates, and a high probability of regaining 50% or more of lost weight in 1 to 2 years.” We believe one of the reasons people experience short-term success but often long-term relapse with Weight Watchers is a flaw in the point system.

Weight Watchers is famous for having dieters count “points” instead of calories. The proprietary points system is designed to take food composition into account, rather than just calories. In theory, this encourages people to eat foods higher in protein and fiber, as well as unlimited amounts of fresh food. In practice, it skews towards chemical-laden foods whose ingredients add up to low “point” values, such as Weight Watchers’ Smart Ones branded prepared foods, and a partnership with Applebees that enables the restaurant to advertise “Weight Watchers Endorsed” meals on their menu. The result is that people following the Weight Watchers plan consume higher levels of GMO foods; meats produced using antibiotics and growth hormones; chemical sweeteners that are considered point-free; extremely high sodium content; and a host of other problems that caused Weight Watchers to receive the Environmental Working Group’s worst possible score for nutrition and processing concerns.

Despite Weight Watchers recent efforts to rebrand itself as a healthier and more holistic (including reaching out to you for this new partnership) the images on Weight Watchers’ own website make it clear what kind of food they are pushing:

Weight Watchers

So here is our request, Ms. Winfrey: use your enormous influence to steer Weight Watchers away from the chemical and additive heavy foods of the past and towards natural, whole foods. This is what your devoted fans deserve. Please play on Weight Watchers’ strengths (such as individualized meal plans and plan personalization) and help guide the company towards taking its customers’ health, and not just their pants size, seriously.

No one will ever have the influence at Weight Watchers (and perhaps the dieting industry as a whole) that you have right now. Please use that influence to guide your audience towards lifelong nutrition and health literacy. That is the only way to improve long-term outcomes. Your audience deserves better than to simply fill up on chemical-laden foods that allow them to drop pounds temporarily. They deserve to have their icon advocate for their health at the highest levels, not simply line the pockets of investors and speculators.

You have the power to enact great change. You have been a trailblazer before. Please be a trailblazer again now.


Clare McCallum and Elizabeth Morrow

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