McDonald's and Weight Watchers: Numbers Don't Add Up, but Pounds Might


Weight Watchers (WTW) and McDonald's (MCD) have teamed up in New Zealand to create three meals that carry the weight-loss program's seal of approval: a chicken wrap, a six-piece McNuggets order and the classic Filet-O-Fish. All three combos come with a water or diet soda, and the McNuggets and Filet-O-Fish also come with a side salad.

The partnership is made possible by "a number of significant and positive changes to our menu over the past few years," Mark Hawthorne, managing director of McDonald's New Zealand, said in a press release, citing several of the chain's moves, including its healthier frying oil and its decision to reduce sugar in its buns and sodium in its dipping sauces. Said Emma Stirling, nutritional advisor for Weight Watchers Australasia: "Our philosophy at Weight Watchers is that all food can be part of a healthy, balanced diet, taking into account portion control and frequency."

By that philosophy, following the program by eating at McDonald's isn't as strange an idea as it sounds. Weight Watchers dieters measure food consumption on a point scale that permits them to eat between 18 and 40 points of food per day. The three McDonald's Weight Watchers meals, according to Weight Watchers New Zealand, are each worth 6.5 points.

Check the Labels

But American Weight Watchers should be careful if they visit a Kiwi branch of McDonald's. Calorie and fat counts differ slightly between the two countries, and the Weight Watchers equation is different, too. In America, the Filet-O-Fish has 380 calories, 18 grams of fat per serving, and 2 grams of dietary fiber, totaling 8.7 Weight Watchers points. A six-piece order of McNuggets has 280 calories, 7 grams of fat, and 0 grams of dietary fiber, yielding 7 points (excluding dipping sauces, most of which add 0.7 points).

The chicken wrap is more promising. American McDonald's' don't sell the Kiwis' seared chicken sweet chili wrap, but our grilled chipotle barbecue snack wrap has 260 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 1 gram of fiber: 5.75 points. But add a salad, light dressing and a diet drink, and the points rise to 6.75 points for the chicken wrap, 8.7 points for the McNuggets, and 9.7 points for the Filet-O-Fish -- all a far cry from New Zealand McDonalds' claim of 6.5 points.

But McDonald's New Zealand's nutritional information site lists the seared chicken sweet chili wrap with a whopping 374 calories and 10 grams of fat, the Filet-O-Fish sandwich with 330 calories and 15 grams of fat, and the six-piece McNugget meal with 269 calories and 19 grams of fat. Any differences between New Zealand's nutritional statistics and ours don't account for the apparent difference in point counts.

Different Countries, Different Points

Why are the point counts lower in New Zealand? One reason may be the calculation. The American equation factors in calories, fat and fiber, but Weight Watchers Australia & New Zealand uses the U.K. points equation, which doesn't factor in fiber content. Instead, it uses a proprietary variable to represent portion size, which injects some uncertainty into the Weight Watchers equation.

McDonald's and Weight Watchers New Zealand representatives acknowledge the difference between the two equations but decline to explain how they calculated the portion-size variable. And because that number determines the ultimate points calculation, it's impossible for us to verify the accuracy of the McDonald's point counts.

TVNZ reports that McDonald's paid Weight Watchers an undisclosed sum for its endorsement, a deal that's reminiscent of a 2007 campaign in which McDonald's paid the Australian Heart Foundation about $275,000 (A$330,000) to approve of nine McDonald's' meals. The message seems to be that, when it comes to deals between Weight Watchers and McDonalds in New Zealand, the most important variable may be the sum on the check.