This month WeightWatchers Clinic welcomed influencers using weight-loss drugs to its GLP-1 House, a Hollywood Hills mansion offering panoramic views of Los Angeles — and an opportunity for creators taking GLP-1s like Ozempic, Wegovy and Mounjaro to learn, educate and discuss their personal journeys around weight health with each other and their audiences. Content coming out of the house touched on the stereotypes facing people living with obesity and the stigma surrounding the use of modern GLP-1 medications to lose weight.
It was all in support of the newly launched WeightWatchers GLP-1 Program, which offers guidance to those using medication, rather than the brand’s infamous points system alone, to slim down. But reactions to social media posts from influencers taking part have been mixed — and experts in obesity research and treatment admit that, while making the conversation around weight stigma more mainstream can be a good thing, things get complicated when it’s WeightWatchers initiating these conversations.
“The lack of acknowledgement that obesity is a disease has been damaging to people for generations. And of course, you know, WeightWatchers and others in this industry have been leading the charge that willpower is the solution to the disease of obesity,” Dr. Shauna Levy, medical director of Tulane’s bariatric and weight-loss center, tells Yahoo Life. "That whole industry has a lot of trust-building that they need to do with society and with people living with the disease of obesity."
What's the issue, and what exactly does this new GLP-1 program involve? Here's what you need to know.
What is WeightWatchers Clinic’s GLP-1 program?
The brand announced the "behavior change" program in December, stating that people taking weight-loss drugs are facing a different set of behavioral and nutritional challenges in their weight-loss journeys than those who aren't on the medications. Instead of encouraging people to restrict their calorie intake by assigning points to food items, this new program aims to guide users to maximize their intake of necessary nutrition as their bodies adjust to rapid weight loss.
This comes after WeightWatchers CEO Sima Sistani spoke to the evolution of the brand in a conversation with longtime spokesperson Oprah Winfrey, who recently revealed that she herself is using weight-loss medication. According to Sistani, the mindset of the brand's founder, Jean Nidetch — who famously said that weight loss was a matter of “choice, not chance” — is not what the company stands for today.
"We introduced the shame for people for whom diet and exercise wasn’t enough," said Sistani in early October. "We want to be the first to say where we got it wrong."
The launch of the GLP-1 program is their first step in doing so. As the brand acknowledges obesity as a chronic condition that requires specialized treatment, it's received praise for changing with the times.
“I really applaud [WeightWatchers] for acknowledging the error of their ways, if you will,” says Levy. “It’s important that this messaging is making its way to our society.”
How might WeightWatchers’s investment in GLP-1s help?
Medical experts agree that there is a lack of information and research when it comes to the topic of obesity. "One of the biggest issues is that we don’t learn about obesity and its treatments in medical school,” says Levy. So, while the existence and use of modern weight-loss medications might be considered game-changing for the industry, there are still a lot of unknowns for both practitioners and patients.
“How do I get to them? How do I treat this disease? Who do I go to?” are some of the questions that Levy is asked on a near daily basis, “because frankly, the [primary care providers] don’t all have a comprehensive understanding,” she says.
If medical professionals and institutions aren’t providing easy access to this information and these prescriptions, then a company like WeightWatchers will — but that’s not necessarily a good thing, Levy warns. “The education and treatment has been outsourced to these third-party vendors,” she says. “And they are not using necessarily evidence-based medicine to treat this disease for the long-term.”
There’s also a gap to be filled when it comes to providing patient support for those using weight-loss drugs. This is a significant lifestyle overhaul, and many people are ill-prepared about what to expect when they start the medication.
“There hasn’t been enough attention made to the type of support people need for GLP-1s,” says Dr. Melanie Jay, director of NYU Langone’s Comprehensive Program on Obesity. “There are side effects, there’s having to deal with being on a long-term medication. There are tips and tricks to decreasing the side effects in terms of meal sizes and the inability to eat really heavy foods or spicy foods.”
Support is necessary for “both adherence to the medication and adherence to lifestyle change,” Jay adds. “Because while the medications make it easier to implement lifestyle change because patients aren’t as hungry and they get fuller faster, you still need to eat healthfully.”
Gary Foster, psychologist, obesity researcher and the chief scientific officer for WeightWatchers, points out that not everybody has the resources or education to do so on their own. “For over a year we’ve been listening to people on a GLP-1 journey to better understand the unique elements that needed addressing from a behavioral standpoint,” he tells Yahoo Life. “We’ve listened to their needs from a nutritional perspective and then looked at the science guidance to determine appropriate recommendations before testing with consumers."
The program focuses on “daily nutrition targets” — like protein, water intake and fruits and vegetables — that are key to feeling good on GLP-1s. There are also activity targets included in the program, trackers to identify individual trends throughout a GLP-1 journey and access to a digital community of peers and experts.
It’s the kind of support that Jay would like to see come from within the health care system. “It’s important that people can find community and receive social support. That is a way of helping counteract stigma,” she says.
Why some take issue with WeightWatchers’s involvement in obesity treatment
Despite acknowledgement that support is needed for GLP-1 users, many question whether WeightWatchers is the best brand to lead the charge in fighting stigma. The company’s decades-long reputation as a space of toxic diet culture is an issue that remains, according to population health dietitian Brittany Vankirk.
“Given WeightWatchers’s history and approach to weight management, I think this will further stigmatize obesity,” she tells Yahoo Life. “They talk about people in larger bodies like they're broken. People in larger bodies don't need to be fixed.”
She continues, “Choosing to lose weight is a personal and sensitive decision. As a dietitian, it's my job to support and guide someone seeking weight loss. It's not my job to incentivize, capitalize, stigmatize or bully them into weight loss."
The latter is what she feels the company does, as do other advocates in the anti-diet space, like plus-size influencer Katie Sturino.
“This is WeightWatchers still, just telling you your body’s wrong,” Sturino said in an Instagram video displaying an ad for WeightWatchers Clinic that features a young plus-size woman. “Nothing’s changed.”
And GLP-1 program or not, the stigmatizing of people in larger bodies is likely to continue.
“Until we fully acknowledge, even within the medical community, that obesity is a disease and should be treated by medical professionals, WeightWatchers and other diet culture will continue to exist,” says Levy.