What Oprah's Weight Watchers deal says about dieting

Oprah Winfrey comes aboard Weight Watchers as it tries to broaden its appeal, reflecting shifts in consumer attitudes toward dieting. 

Greg Allen/ AP
Oprah Winfrey attends the premiere of the Oprah Winfrey Network's (OWN) documentary series "Belief" in New York on Wednesday. Today, Weight Watchers announced that Winfrey will join its Board of Directors after buying 10 percent at of the company's stock for $43.2 million.

"It's choice, not chance, that determines your destiny," Jean Nidetch preached when she founded Weight Watchers in the 1960s. 

The pronouncement could describe Oprah Winfrey, as well. The self-made billionaire's hard work and empathy make her one of America's most trusted celebrities, one whose constant (and public) battles with weight loss make her all the more beloved by the Oprah Winfrey Network's (OWN) millions of cable viewers.

Today, Weight Watchers International announced that Oprah would come on board as owner, board member, and just-like-you everyday member after she purchased 10 percent of the company's shares for $43.2 million. 

The change comes as Weight Watchers continues to rebrand itself, swapping a points-based image of shaming weigh-ins for "a general emphasis on healthier, happier living.”

"Oprah is a force of nature in connecting with people on a very personal level to live inspired lives," Weight Watchers Chairman Ray Debbane said in a press release.  

"Weight Watchers has given me the tools to begin to make the lasting shift that I and so many of us who are struggling with weight have longed for," Winfrey said in a statement. "I believe in the program so much I decided to invest in the company and partner in its evolution."

Orpah's involvement may help rescue the struggling firm – and accelerate its needed evolution, as Americans abandon 'dieting,' per se, for more holistic wellness programs.  

Until Oprah's announced purchase, Weight Watcher's stock price had tumbled 92 percent since May 2011. USA Today suggests that drop reflects shifts in consumer attitudes, as digital dieting, not in-person meetings, become the norm:

An increasing number of dieters are counting calories with smartphone applications, monitoring their physical activity with high-tech devices and shifting their emphasis from caloric intake to healthy eating.

About 800,000 members attended Weight Watchers meetings in 2014, down 38% from 1.3 million members in 2011. 

To be sure, Weight Watchers's website, overhauled magazine, and new "Help with the Hard Part" campaign are part of its response to changing attitudes. The company has invested in digital services, including one-on-one health advice through email, text-messaging and phone calls. "It has also created personalized online accounts that sync with activity-tracking devices such as FitBit," notes USA Today.

At 52 years, Weight Watchers is relatively senior compared to other companies selling shrinking waistlines today. But U.S. News ranked the program third among all eating plans, citing cost as the only downside

It may work. But can it convince consumers to give it a try, compared to a smorgasbord of 'lifestyles' flooding the wellness market?

Undeterred by Time Magazine's controversial 2009 pronouncement that "Exercise Won't Make You Thin," Americans seem increasingly convinced that calorie reduction is only part the battle.

Despite years of dour warnings on the country's obesity epidemic — over 60 percent are overweight or obese — the American diet hasn't shrunk much, apart from a decrease in soda drinking: on average, we each ate just 86 calories fewer per day in 2010, compared to 2003. 

But intense fitness trends are on the rise, from urban-ubiquitous CrossFit to SoulCycle to Lululemon's infamous yoga pants. "Are you going to the gym, or do you just dress that way?" the Wall Street Journal asked devotees of the growing "athleisure" apparel trend. Fit or not, Americans love to look the part. 

An emphasis on fitness sounds healthier than skinniness alone, and campaigns like Dove's Real Beauty campaign, featuring a diverse lineup of un-airbrushed ladies, may be having a real effect on definitions of beauty. 

Over the past 30 years, the percentage of Americans who agree that "people who are not overweight look a lot more attractive" has shrunk by more than half, to a spindly 23 percent. 

The idea that 'fit' doesn't have to equal 'stick-thin' may owe part of its success to fitness programs such as CrossFit, whose rigorous, lifting-heavy "Workouts of the Day" have exploded in popularity.  

"CrossFit starts with an identity shift off the bat: You become an athlete," fitness author J.C. Herz told the Washington Post. "Not just a lady who doesn’t like her thighs or a guy trying to lose the spare tire but an athlete."

Oprah, whose publications and cable channel regularly feature self-help themes like self-acceptance and spirituality, may help Weight Watchers broadcast the social, confidence-boosting aspects of its program. "Our mission is to help people change their relationship with food for good," Weight Watchers Magazine Editor-in-Chief Theresa DiMasi said in a statement. It's for "energy, pleasure, and a way to bring people together," not therapy: the "emotional eating" struggle Oprah has spoken about openly, telling CNN's Piers Morgan that she ate "about 30 pounds worth" of macaroni after reading negative reviews. 

 In a 2014 interview with Barbara Walters, Oprah was asked to fill in the blank: "Before I leave this Earth, I will not be satisfied until I ..."

Oprah's answer: "... until I make peace with the whole weight thing."

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