PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: MARIA-JULIANA ROJAS. PHOTOGRAPHS USED IN ILLUSTRATION BY Mario Tama/Getty Images ;ADOBE STOCK
Since Ozempic first went from drug newcomer to viral superstar, the semaglutide injectable bar has been hailed as a breakthrough for pharmaceutical brands, wellness treatments, telehealth companies, endocrinology plans, bariatric therapy and most major health-related companies. Now the weight loss industry wants in.
In March, the popular weight loss program acquired WeightWatchers telehealth platform Sequence and announced members would be able to use the new subscription-based acquisition to get GLP-1 weight loss drugs like Ozempic, Wegovy and tablet options like Rybelsus. But the move appears to be at odds with the program’s longstanding principles. First started in 1963 and established in malls across America, WeightWatchers has long been touted by its followers (including Oprah Winfrey herself, who owns a stake in the company) as an easier way to lose weight while avoiding the stigma and temptation of crash diets and weight loss pills.
WeightWatchers revolves around a constantly changing points system that ranks food based on its calories and sugar content and then awards members a certain number of points each day based on their goals. It also combines the points system with an accountability framework where members attend meetings together, weigh in and discuss their journeys with both a coach and each other: a method the company says is “scientifically proven” to change people’s relationship with food.
In a Press release in March, WeightWatchers CEO Sima Sistani said the move was an effort to keep the weight-loss platform advancing as fast as science. “It is our responsibility as the trusted leader in weight management to support those interested in exploring whether medication is right for them,” SIstani said. Some Weight Watchers users who feel stuck or plateaued in their weight loss have welcomed the change, while a majority in online chat rooms on sites like Facebook and Reddit seem to have more questions than resolutions. But nearly four months after the decision, the focal point of medical weight loss management has not been fully embraced by WeightWatchers strongest and most vocal supporters online: WeightWatchers influencers.
Sophia Cosentino Pezzuti, 23, started on WeightWatchers in 2021 and began posting TikToks about it soon after to keep herself accountable and on track in the program. Now she shares point-based recipes with her 30,000 followers. She tells Rolling stones that when WeightWatchers first announced its partnership with Sequence, the reaction from members and WeightWatchers influencers matched Ozempic’s rise: swift and intense.
“A lot of WeightWatchers creators got a lot of comments and questions about this when it first came out,” says Pezzuti. “The level of conversation around these medications that feel so big can sometimes make it seem like, ‘Oh, this is going to change everything now.’ Or on the other hand it’s like ‘We’re abandoning the original, scientific principles of how to lose weight in a healthy way.’ So I think the reaction might be a little extreme because the rise in these drugs has felt extreme.”
But while the discussion around what a medicated WeightWatchers would look like has been dense, what has been less present is a genuine shift in user content to match the company’s new focus. However, the company says they are patient. “Social media is an incredibly powerful place to discover, learn and most importantly, connect with others,” WeightWatchers said in a statement to Rolling stones. “With that, the community is at the heart of our brand, and we have always used first person storytelling – on social media and beyond. We will continue to embrace our members and showcase their personal experiences that others can relate to.”
Biz Velatini, a creator of weight loss and food content, first joined WeightWatchers in 1999 and began posting points-friendly recipes to TikTok earlier this year. But she says that even as a type 1 diabetic who has already been prescribed Ozempic, she’s not particularly happy with the new shift in direction — because she thinks it will reinforce rapid weight loss without a lifestyle change behind it.
“The only reason I’m on Ozempic is because it lets me take less rapid-acting insulin with my meals,” says Velatini. “But when I saw that WeightWatchers was (collaborating with) Sequence, it just rubbed me the wrong way because I think everyone is looking for the quick fix. Even on WeightWatchers Connect (an in-app platform that allows users to chat with each other about their progress), people have unrealistic expectations of how weight loss works. And if it’s not fast enough, it means it’s not working for them.”
Velatini also adds that the response to Ozempic may be fueled by frustration that other beloved aspects of WeightWatchers are changing, as the company has begun closing local studios across the country in favor of virtual meetings and switching from a local to a national pool of trainers to choose from . While the move has allowed her to find an “amazing” coach, she notes that some who prefer an in-person community are stuck. And while Sequence has been marketed by WeightWatchers as a useful addition to the program, it doesn’t come without a price bump. Access to Sequence is not required, but it is $99 per month on top of the average $40 monthly fee members pay. It’s not enough to stop Valanti, but it doesn’t mean Ozempic will play a big role in her content going forward.
“I think WeightWatchers is a great tool because it teaches people how to live a lifestyle and still eat the things you want, but in moderation. Half of my followers are WeightWatchers and they want like to know the points for everything,” says Velatini. “I have confidence in the process, I just think it’s unfortunate that they went the way of Ozempic. It’s a lot to ask of people.”
While the popularity of weight loss programs has fluctuated over the years, WeightWatchers and other popular diets still play an overriding role in the health corner of TikTok, says dietitian Samantha Previte Rolling stones. The company first published on the platform in October 2020 and has since developed an affiliate program that pays creators for sponsored videos and recipes. This means that the company is often associated with other health-related hashtags that non-members can search such as #healthyrecipes, #foodie or #highprotein – and can often be found surrounded by messages promoting eating disorders. Previte, who shares intuitive and “weight-neutral” health advice on TikTok, says the sheer flood of diet culture content can be hard to penetrate and even harder to steer vulnerable groups away from. In fact, it’s so difficult that it’s not something she tries anymore—and instead focuses on delivering a message that can speak to people who are ready to leave diets behind.
“Food culture is everywhere. You step outside, you turn on an advertisement, you are on social media, you go out to eat with friends. No matter where you are, food culture is there,” says Previte. “But I have freed myself from the responsibility of convincing people not to lose weight. It’s not my job. My job is to deliver a fair, unbiased health message that doesn’t instill guilt and shame and teaches that we can do better in ways that aren’t disconnected from shrinking the body.”
While Previte says her method is seen as “radical” online, she notes that the changing language around weight loss has already found its way into how weight is discussed in larger diets. Pezzuti is just one of dozens of WeightWatchers influencers who have not chosen or publicly shared a goal weight. Rather, she is focused on finding a weight that she feels her body can comfortably maintain and bring people along for the ride. And that trip does not include Ozempic, she says Rolling stones. At least for now.
“I never liked the idea of switching to diet food because I thought, ‘Okay, yes, I can eat it now to lose weight, but what does it look like for the rest of my life?'” says Pezzuti. “I want to be in a place where my body is comfortable. When these kinds of drugs are prescribed responsibly, I think they can be a really good thing for people. I don’t personally have a problem with (Ozempic), but it probably isn’t something I would do. If my health turned around or I were to find out there was something that made weight loss a very serious situation, that’s a different story. I just don’t think it’s necessarily for me. “