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Weighing In On The New Oprah-Weight Watchers Venture

Weight Watchers announced Oct. 19 that Oprah Winfrey is taking an approximately 10 percent stake in the weight management company for about $43.2 million and joining its board. Here, Winfrey is seen in an Oct. 14 file photo. (Greg Allen/Invision/AP)

Weight Watchers announced Oct. 19 that Oprah Winfrey is taking an approximately 10 percent stake in the weight management company for about $43.2 million and joining its board. Here, Winfrey is seen in an Oct. 14 file photo. (Greg Allen/Invision/AP)

By Jean Fain

When I learned that Oprah Winfrey would be the new face of Weight Watchers as well as a major investor in the international diet company, I panicked. Would this endorsement by a beloved celebrity lure even more desperate dieters into counting calories, weighing foods and getting sucked into the group’s particular brand of tough love?

Let me back up for a moment: If the partnership between the faltering diet company and former talk show host is news to you, Oprah recently invested $43.2 million in Weight Watchers International, Inc., to help dieters everywhere lose weight and gain health and happiness.

She initially bought 6.4 million shares, or 10 percent, of Weight Watchers, and has the option to buy another 3.5 million. Her investment immediately started paying off: The stock doubled on day one, earning the most recognizable black billionaire $70 million, at least on paper. What’s more, since Aug. 12, Oprah has lost 15 pounds.

So, is a Weight Watchers’ membership a wise investment? I’ve already written about what I feel are the organizations’ downsides in an earlier post. At best, Weight Watchers provides a short-term fix and conditional support for long-standing eating issues. At worst, the food plan can exacerbate the very problems members are hoping to resolve.

Unless you’ve been on a media diet, you already know that Oprah has a long history of gaining and losing weight. Over the last 25 years, the yo-yo dieter, who has written of her ongoing “food addiction,” has tried everything from liquid diets and rigorous exercise to a personal chef and a more spiritual path, but she’s yet to settle on any one successful, sustainable approach.

To help you make a wise investment, I solicited a half dozen expert opinions via email and asked what they think of Oprah’s slimming plan and her open invitation to “come join me” at Weight Watchers. More specifically, I posed two questions:

1) What’s your reaction to the announcement that Oprah is not only the new face of Weight Watchers, she’s a major investor in the diet company?

2) Oprah is asking everyone to join her in counting Weight Watchers’ points. Will you join her? Why or why not?

To be fair, I also asked Oprah and friends for their thoughts. Neither Gayle King, Oprah’s close pal, nor Oprah’s publicist got back to me. All I got from Stedman Graham, Oprah’s boyfriend, was an automated response. If there were a surprise, it’s how hard it was to find a single expert who’s excited about this fledgling partnership.

What follows are highlights from those recent email interviews:

— Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, author of “Soda Politics”:

“It’s a classic conflict of interest — she’s flacking a company in which she invests. The more she flacks, the more people join, and the more money she will make. There are worse things to flack. Weight Watchers is actually demonstrated to be a reasonable diet plan. It works for some people.

“I’m of the persuasion that weight can be managed by eating less. I’m trained in nutrition and don’t need to count points.”

 Traci Mann, diet researcher, author of “Secrets from the Eating Lab” and advocate of strategic eating:

“Oprah has made an outstanding investment. As long as people give diet companies the credit when they lose weight, but not the blame when they regain it, there will always be business for companies like Weight Watchers. As much as I love Oprah, I see no reason to join in with that near-futile mission. Weight Watchers leads to short-term weight loss, but in the long term, the majority of individuals regain what they lost.” Continue reading