Since Ozempic first went from drug newcomer to viral superstar, the semaglutide injectable has been hailed as an advancement for pharmaceutical brands, wellness treatments, telehealth companies, endocrinologist plans, bariatric therapy, and most major health-related enterprises. Now, the weight loss industry wants in.
In March, popular weight loss program WeightWatchers acquired telehealth platform Sequence and announced members would be able to use the new subscription-based acquisition to get GLP-1 weight loss medications like Ozempic, Wegovy, and tablet options like Rybelsus. But the move seems to be at odds with the longstanding tenets of the program. WeightWatchers, which was first started in 1963 and instituted in strip malls across America, has long been touted by its supporters (including Oprah Winfrey herself, who owns 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 an ever-changing points system that ranks food based on its calories and sugar content and then allows members a certain amount 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 that the move was an effort to keep the weight loss platform advancing as rapidly as the science. “It is our responsibility, as the trusted leader in weight management, to support those interested in exploring if medications are right for them,” SIstani said. Some Weight Watchers users feeling 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 decisions. But almost four months after the decision, the pivot to medical weight loss management hasn’t been fully adopted 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 points-based recipes with her 30,000 followers. She tells Rolling Stone that when WeightWatchers first announced its partnership with Sequence, the reaction from members and WeightWatchers influencers matched Ozempic’s rise: fast and intense.
“A lot of WeightWatchers creators got lots of comments and questions about this when it first came out,” Pezzuti says. “The level of conversation around these medications feeling so big can sometimes make it seem like ‘Oh, this is going to change everything now.’ Or, on the other side, it’s like ‘We’re abandoning the original, scientific tenets of how to lose weight in a healthy way.’ So I think the response might be a little extreme, because the rise of these drugs has felt extreme.”
But while discussion surrounding what a WeightWatchers with medication would look like has been dense, what’s been less present is a genuine shift in user content to match the company’s new focus. The company, however, says they’re being patient. “Social media is an incredibly powerful place to discover, learn, and most importantly, connect with others,” WeightWatchers said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “With that, community is at the heart of our brand, and we have always leveraged 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 weight loss and food content creator, first joined WeightWatchers in 1999 and began posting points-friendly recipes to TikTok earlier this year. But she says that even as a type-one diabetic who has already been prescribed Ozempic, she’s not particularly pleased with the new shift in direction — because she thinks it will reinforce dropping weight fast without a lifestyle change behind it.
“The only reason I’m on Ozempic is because it lets me take less fast-acting insulin with my meals,” Velatini says. “But when I saw that WeightWatchers was [partnering with] Sequence that just rubbed me the wrong way, because I think that everyone’s 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 on how weight loss works. And if it’s not fast enough, that means it’s not working for them.”
Velatini also adds that the response to Ozempic might be amplified by frustration over other beloved aspects of WeightWatchers changing, as the company has begun shuttering local studios across the country in favor of virtual meetings and switching from a local to national pool of coaches to choose from. While the move has allowed her to find an “awesome” coach, she notes that some who prefer an in-person community are stuck. And while Sequence has been marketed by WeightWatchers as a helpful addition to the program, it doesn’t come without a bump in price. Access to Sequence isn’t required, but it is $99 a month in addition to the average $40 monthly fee members pay. It’s not enough to make Valanti quit, but that doesn’t mean Ozempic will play a major 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 follow[ers] are WeightWatchers people and they want to know the points for everything,” Velatini says. “I trust the process, I just think it’s unfortunate they went the route of Ozempic. That’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 outsized role on the health corner of TikTok, dietician Samantha Previte tells Rolling Stone. The company first posted their on the platform in October 2020, and has since developed a partner program that pays creators for sponsored videos and recipes. It means that the company is often linked with other health-related hashtags non-members might search like #healthyrecipes, #foodie, or #highprotein — and can often be found surrounded by messaging that promotes disordered eating. Previte, who shares intuitive and “weight neutral” health advice on TikTok, says that the sheer inundation of diet culture content can be hard to penetrate, and even harder to steer vulnerable groups away from. In fact, it’s so hard that it’s not something she tries anymore— and instead on focusing on delivering a message that can speak to people who are ready to leave diets behind.
“Diet culture is everywhere. You step outside, you turn on a commercial, you’re on social media, you go out to eat with friends. Wherever you are, diet culture is there,” Previte says. “But I have released myself of the responsibility of convincing people not to diet. It’s not my job. My job is to deliver a fair, unbiased health care message that doesn’t instill guilt and shame and teaches that we can better in ways uncoupled from shrinking the body.”
While Previte says that her method is seen as “radical” online, she notes that the changing language around weight loss has already made its way into how weight is discussed in bigger diets. Pezzuti is just one of dozens of WeightWatchers influencers who haven’t picked or publically shared a goal weight. Rather, she’s focused on finding a weight she feels like her body can comfortably maintain and bringing people along for the ride. And that journey doesn’t include, Ozempic, she tells Rolling Stone. At least, for now.
“I never liked the idea of switching to diet foods, because I was like, ‘Okay, well, I can eat that now to lose weight, but what does that look like for the rest of my life?’” Pezzuti says. “I want to be somewhere that my body is comfortable. When these kinds of drugs are prescribed responsibly, I think they can be a really great thing for people. I don’t personally have any problem with [Ozempic], but it’s probably not something that I would do. If my health turned, or I was to find out that there was something making weight loss a very dire situation, that’s a different story. I just don’t think it’s necessarily for me.”