By Jon Bonné
updated 8/24/2004 6:15:09 PM ET 2004-08-24T22:15:09

Point-counters can throw away their calculators.

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Facing shrinking enrollment from carb-cowering Americans, Weight Watchers has unveiled the first major change to its diet plan in a decade: adding a new weight-loss program that focuses on nutritious food that fills stomachs without packing on calories.

The Core Plan, as it is called, consists of a list of approved items from every food group that can be eaten with almost no regard to portion size. Like the company's well-known point system, it allows dieters some small indulgences. And, in a turn that will please dieters who crave some variety, the new plan is interchangable with points so people can switch between the two plans, which together will now be called the TurnAround program, as frequently as once per week.

Video: Weight Watchers revamps diet "We tell people, eat as much of the core foods as you need to feel satisfied," said Karen Miller-Kovach, Weight Watchers' chief scientific officer. "It allows people the flexibility so that they don't have to be perfect."

The new program resembles certain other diet programs, notably the Volumetrics weight plan, in that it focuses on high-volume foods with a low energy density.

The Core Plan will focus on broth-based soups, as well as leaner meats, fresh produce, whole grains and nonfat dairy products. As with Weight Watchers' current system, it includes menu suggestions at popular restaurants. Many suggestions are similar to those noted by the federal panel revising the nation's food pyramid, before which Weight Watchers officials testified.

Members can find details at Weight Watchers locations or on the company's Web site.

No 'trigger foods'
What's not on the list of approved foods? White rice, some breakfast cereals and nonfat yogurt packaged with fruit, among others. In designing the plan over the past 18 months and testing it on 10,000 volunteers, Weight Watchers identified these as "trigger foods," items people said they kept eating too frequently.

The program will also ask members to evaluate their food "comfort zone" every few hours on a five-point scale, with the goal being right in the middle -- not too full, not too hungry. As with the point system, Core dieters should be able to lose between one and two pounds per week.

The goal is a balanced diet that encourages moderate eating, with an emphasis on whole foods and little use of processed products.

"It sounds reasonable and it sounds totally sane," said New York University nutrition researcher Lisa Young. "This is what we've been saying as nutritionists for years and years."

The new effort is also a bid to head off shrinking attendance at Weight Watchers' 46,000 weekly meetings -- especially in its North American locations, where attendance was down nearly 17 percent last quarter, even more than the 4 percent decline the previous quarter.

While low-carb options like the Atkins diet were initially blamed for the shrinkage, the company's own watchers on Wall Street pointed to the company's structured programs. The focus on regular meeting attendance may have turned off dieters who have grown accustomed to less formal plans, said the analysts, who have been awaiting details of the new plan since at least April. FlexPoints, Weight Watcher's 2003 modification of its long-standing point system, gave dieters more options but did little to improve membership.

By contrast, Atkins Nutritionals focuses on its books and food products rather than an in-person approach.

"A key problem for Weight Watchers is attracting new members," said Citigroup Smith Barney analyst Greg Badishkanian, who recently downgraded the company's stock. "Are they more focused on sort of a quick fix? Are they more focused on going on the Internet, reading a book, or do they want to go to the meetings?"

Looking for rules
The Weight Watchers staff noticed something else. Dieters in the United States were often turning to low-carb options like Atkins and the South Beach diet, while many of its European clients had stopped attending in favor of other acute diet plans like combined foods, which allows dieters to mix certain foods but not others.

"It made us say, 'Something's going on. Why are people trying these approaches?'" said Miller-Kovach.

Their conclusion? Consumers were flocking to those diets because of their specificity: Eat this, don't eat that. The Core Plan is meant to offer that sort of rigorous guidance to those who want it, including clients who were scared off by the flexibility (and the dinner-table math) of point-counting.

Whether it will appeal to current and new potential clients is harder to tell. The Weight Watchers approach, which highlights not only diet advice but exercise plans and the social bonding at its meetings, may be a tough sell to the millions of do-it-yourself dieters in the United States. And habits take a while to change. Badishkanian noted that the company's share of profits from meetings shrank for seven straight years, from 1990 to 1997.

But there are also signs that fad diets are losing popularity among Americans, two-thirds of whom the government now considers overweight or obese. While a recent study by research firm TFS NFO found nearly six in 10 people were neither on a diet nor an eating program, 70 percent of those who weren't said they were still cutting certain foods out of their diets.

The apparent shift could help Weight Watchers, which has staked its claim on long-term solutions. It is also a tasty morsel to many nutritionists, who have long criticized short-term diets.

"You can do anything for three weeks," said Miller-Kovach, "but when those three weeks are over, you still have your life to live."

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