Looking for the Old Weight Watchers Exchange Plan?

Weight Watchers Zero-Point Soup Came From Old Exchange Program
I had the best success with
the Old Weight Watchers Exchange Plan,
but it is not as flexible as Points Plus.

Are you looking for the old Weight Watchers Exchange Plan popular in the mid 1980s?

Many dieters have become frustrated with the new Weight Watchers SmartPoints plan because it penalizes you for eating sugar and saturated fats. As a result, you might be seeking additional Weight Watchers alternatives, such as the old exchange plans.

Here's the one that I used:

My first experience with the Old Weight Watchers Exchange Plan was back in the mid 1980s. This was before the Quick-Start Program came out.

My sister had joined Weight Watchers several weeks before, followed it religiously, and dropped a lot of weight.

Mom, who believed the plan worked due to the special combination of foods you eat, rather than lower calories, volunteered to pay the weekly fees for me.

Since I was raising four sons on a strict food budget at the time, the cost of attending the weekly meetings and weigh-in was more than I could afford.

I didn't have a lot of confidence in the plan.

My background was the original 1972 Atkins Diet. Carbohydrate restriction was what I knew worked, but since mom was paying, I was willing to give it a fair chance.

I can't remember how much I weighed before going on the Weight Watchers diet, but I was completely shocked at just how well it worked . . .

Pinterest Image: Salisbury Steak, Mashed Potatoes and Gravy, Green Beans with Butter

What is the Old Weight Watchers Exchange Plan?

If you're looking for the Old Weight Watchers Exchange Plan, then you already know what it is. For those who don't, I'll explain:

Before Weight Watchers came out with their gimmick of counting points, foods were counted according to servings. 
Each serving or portion was called an exchange. Within a certain group of foods like:
  • breads
  • proteins
  • milk
  • fats
  • vegetables
one portion of food could be exchanged for something else within the same food category.

You were given daily totals for each food group and could spend those exchange totals any way you wished. There was also a weekly allotment of calories that you could use on condiments, chips, and sweets. The structure made the Weight Watchers Exchange diet easier to follow than the previous version.

Barbecued Potato Chips and Plain Pringle Chips
At 160 calories per ounce, potato chips were simple
to work into your Weight Watchers plan.

Originally, the Weight Watchers diet told you exactly what food group to eat at which meal. For example: You had to eat one serving of bread at breakfast with your protein. You didn't have a choice as to whether you wanted to save it for a sandwich later on.

But this new exchange version that I followed in the '80s gave you much more freedom to create your own Weight Watchers meals than the original Weight Watchers diet did.

To keep track of what you ate during the day, we used an exchange checklist that was handed out at meetings. The checklist gave you the freedom of checking off what you ate and helped you track how much water you drank during the day, so you could make sure you were meeting all of the minimum nutritional requirements you needed.

Since there were weekly restrictions on the amount of eggs, red meat, and cheese you could eat, the checklist made it easy to keep track of those too.

Unlike the current SmartPoints program, the Old Weight Watcher's Exchange Plan was simple and guaranteed that you were eating a healthy, balanced diet.

What Can You Eat on the Old Weight Watchers Exchange Plan?

The following list of food exchanges is what we ate in the '80s.

Keep in mind that this is not the Quick Start Diet program that came out later. If you're looking for the plan that introduced floating exchanges, click on the link. In that post, I talk about the three quick-start programs, lay out the formula for each one, and briefly explain how Weight Watchers eventually evolved into the points system they use today.

In this post, I'm going to talk about the exchange diet that I know very well.

Although there are a lot of similarities between the two Weight Watchers diets, the Quick Start programs are quite different. They don't have as much structure and are far easier to abuse than this one.

Here is the Old Weight Watchers Exchange Plan:

Protein: 9 exchanges for women, 12 for men.

One protein exchange was:
  • 1-ounce of cooked meat or poultry
  • 1-1/2 ounces fish or shellfish
  • 1/4 cup tuna
  • 1/4 cup cottage cheese
  • 1 egg
  • 1-ounce of low-fat cheese like skim-milk mozzarella or Parmesan cheese
Protein choices included:
  • meat
  • fish
  • skinless poultry
that was:
  • boiled
  • steamed
  • grilled
  • baked on a rack
  • broiled
For example, you didn't brown ground beef in a skillet. You formed it into a large patty, broiled it on a rack until it was medium rare, and then crumbled it up for your tacos, spaghetti sauce, or a casserole.

(However, I never actually did it that way. I just sauteed it in a skillet, drained the grease, and still lost the weight I needed to.)

A protein exchange was equal to 70 calories.

All of the serving portions within this group were approximately the same number of calories. This is why you didn't have to count them. The exchanges do that for you.

To make counting poultry exchanges easier:
  • 3-ounces of raw dark-meat poultry with bone
  • or 2-ounces of raw poultry breast with bone
was counted as 1 protein exchange.

In addition:
  • 4-ounces of raw boneless meat or poultry
  • or 6-ounces of fish or shellfish
was counted as 3 protein exchanges. This was due to shrinkage during cooking.

A quarter-cup of shredded or finely diced cooked meat or poultry was also 1 exchange.

One serving of liver per week was mandatory.

So was 3 servings of fish.

Eggs and hard cheese were limited to 4 exchanges per week.

Red meat was limited to 12-ounces per week.

The limitations were due to the amount of cholesterol in those foods. At that time, it was thought that excess dietary cholesterol caused blood cholesterol levels to rise.

Today, that has been scientifically proven to be false, so many people who have returned to this plan have ignored these strict weekly regulations for limiting cholesterol intake, and they have still been successful in losing weight.

Milk: 2 exchanges for all adults, 3 exchanges for youth.

One milk exchange was:
  • 1 cup non-fat milk
  • 1/3 cup of non-fat dry milk powder
  • 1/2 cup non-fat evaporated milk
  • 1 cup non-fat plain yogurt
  • 1/2 cup reduced-calorie pudding made with non-fat milk
  • 1 cup "diet" hot chocolate made with non-fat milk
(Artificially sweetened, flavored low-fat and non-fat yogurt cups did not exist back then.)

A milk exchange was equal to 90 calories.

Later on, when the Quick Start program was implemented, a workaround for using low-fat milk was introduced. But in this initial exchange program, we were only allowed to use non-fat milk.

Non-starchy Vegetables: 4 exchanges minimum.

Non-starchy vegetables could be eaten freely, but the minimum had to be eaten every day.

An exchange was:
  • 1 cup of leafy greens
  • 1/2 cup of cooked or raw non-starchy vegetables
  • 1/2 cup vegetable juice
A vegetable exchange contained 25 calories.

Starchy vegetables like corn, peas, potatoes and traditional mixed vegetables (canned or frozen) were part of the bread exchange due to the number of carbohydrates and calories they have.

Fruit: 3 exchanges for women, 5 for men.

Medium-sized fruits like apples and oranges were 1 exchange.

Small fruits such as apricots, plums, and tangerines were 1/2 of a fruit exchange.

One-half of a grapefruit or 1/2 of a medium banana was one exchange.

Grapes were about 15 grapes, if I remember correctly.

Frozen or canned fruits were 1/2 cup per exchange, but they had to be unsweetened or packed in juice.

Splenda sweetened canned fruit didn't exist back then.

A fruit exchange was equal to 60 calories.

Bread: 2 to 3 exchanges for women, 4 for men.

Most of us who came from a low-carb background tried to stick to the lower amount of bread exchanges, eating 3 servings of bread only occasionally. We were counseled to purchase bread that fit within the 80 calories assigned to the exchange.

Bread can be a bit tricky, due to the size of the loaf, the amount of air in the bread, and any extras it has like raisins.

A bread exchange contained 80 calories.

The serving size of breads and rolls was:

3/4 of an ounce

The reason for this odd serving size was because 3 tablespoons flour was the standard exchange they measured breads by.

Most dark breads back then were not really made from whole wheat flour or whole grains. They were made with all-purpose flour that was colored brown, so the loaf was light. A 1-pound loaf of bread was typical.

If you went with a low-calorie bread, which was popular at the time, you could eat 2 slices for an exchange, provided the bread didn't exceed 40 calories per slice.

Small hamburger buns and hot dog buns (the cheap, soft, fluffy kind) were 1-1/2 exchanges.

Some Weight Watchers leaders balked at that idea and told us to ignore the calorie count, but that wasn't how the reading materials told us to approach the plan. Small buns back then were only 120 calories, so a lot of us counted them as 1-1/2 exchanges instead of two.

Large burger buns or higher-quality hot-dog buns were heavier and more calorie-dense, so they were 2 exchanges.

Higher-calorie breads, such as English muffins, were also 2 exchanges, but you could eat 1/2 a muffin for 1 exchange.

Cold cereals, crackers, and dry pasta was also 3/4-ounce per exchange.

You could have 1/2-cup cooked cereal, pasta, or rice.

Potatoes were 3-ounces per exchange, so a medium 6-ounce baked potato was 2 bread exchanges.

Other options were:
  • 1/4-cup cooked beans, lentils, or dried peas
  • small 4-inch pancake
  • 1/2-cup mixed vegetables
  • 2- to 3-cups air-popped popcorn
Lack of choices in the bread category wasn't because a particular food wasn't nutritious or was fattening. Allowable items were limited to individual foods that Weight Watchers personnel had studied and evaluated for their nutritional content when compared to bread.

When I first started the program, for example, tortillas and taco shells were not allowed. Later on, a corn tortilla or hard taco shell was added for 1 exchange, as was a small 6-inch flour tortilla.

A fat exchange was:

1 teaspoon of butter, margarine, oil, or mayonnaise

Reduced-calorie fats like tub margarine and light mayonnaise were 2 teaspoons per exchange.

Reduced-calorie products are whipped with water, milk, or extra air to make them lighter, fluffy, and cover a larger area when spread on toast or crackers. They don't work well in baking due to the extra liquid and reduced fat content.

Salad dressing was also 2 teaspoons per exchange since they often contain other liquids besides oil or mayonnaise.

A fat exchange was 40 calories.

Chicken Kabobs: Chicken, Peppers, Onions, and Mushrooms
Chicken Kabobs:
Chicken, Peppers, Onions, and Mushrooms

Daily Calorie Counts for Weight Watchers Meals

The basic diet for women, if you just ate the bare minimum of exchanges required, would be about 1370 calories. The third bread exchange would take your daily total to 1450, and additional vegetables would raise it even more.

The basic diet for men contained about 1860 calories.

Traditional low-calorie diets were 1200 calories per day back then, so the Weight Watchers Exchange Plan allowed more food than your average weight-loss diet, which many dieters found very attractive.

Despite the higher calorie count, the diet worked very well. I was able to get down to 160 pounds quite effortlessly before the body started kicking up a fuss and I hit my set point.

Keep in mind, I'm only 5-feet tall, and at that time, Weight Watchers meals didn't have any built-in method for reducing calories as you lost the weight.

You kept the same calorie count throughout your entire weight-loss phase, and there was no help for situations like when your Leptin level decided to tank or when you reached energy balance or set point.

This is the point where I started to maintain. I didn't know anything about:
  • Leptin levels
  • effects of yo-yo dieting on the body
  • the way the body defends it's fat storage
  • how the body reacts after you lose a lot of weight
  • how many calories it took to maintain 115 pounds
I had no tools to work with other than the exchange diet itself. I thought the diet had stopped working, so I gave up. Today, I'm much better educated on what's going on and what you can expect. What I should have done was simply cut out some of the fruit and bread.

Weekly Extra Calories Allowed

In addition to the basic diet, the plan also allowed for up to 550 extra calories per week that could be spent on anything you liked. These extra calories amounted to 75 calories per day.

These calories will bump your daily calorie totals for all Weight Watchers foods to about:
  • 1445 to 1525 for women
  • 1935 for men
Depending on your actual food choices, of course.

Carbohydrates were much lower than your typical 1200 calorie diet and about one-half of a standard American diet, as defined by today's standards. This was during the time when the basic four food groups were considered the ultimate authority on nutrition, so people didn't eat as many carbs as they do today.

The extra weekly calories Weight Watchers allowed were for small amounts of condiments, a bit of real sugar, or anything that wasn't on the list like potato chips, but you could also spend your extra calories on another exchange per day if you were still hungry.

As the exchange plan began to evolve with the Quick Start era, the extra calories drastically increased, but when I first started the Weight Watchers Exchange Plan, they were only 550 per week, about what you'd spend on an average slice of cake.

That wasn't much when you consider how sparse the exchange lists were back then, but learning how to combine exchanges into recipes and how to count the different exchanges in a product helped a lot.

Weekly calories could be spread throughout the week, some of them saved until the weekend, or spent all at once on a slice of birthday cake or a nice evening out.

Calories, however, cannot be rolled over into the next week. That would be stretching the rules a bit too far. The body will store all of the calories you don't use within a day or two.

The idea is to change your daily habits and lifestyle for something healthier and do what's to your advantage.

Free Weight Watchers Checklist

I have been searching online for quite some time to find the original Weight Watchers Checklist that specifically deals with the original exchanges and limitations that worked for me, but most people don't remember that checklist. Most people remember the Quick Start Weight Watchers plan instead.

There are a few of the Quick Start checklists available online. They have fewer exchange boxes since Quick Start gave you the freedom to use floating exchanges. The original Weight Watchers Exchange Program did not.

One of our readers was kind enough to design a checklist for me with some added information and tips. It's based on the Quick Start Program, but the chart is big enough that you can easily add the extra boxes you need if you want to print it out and use it with the exchanges I've listed above.

Combining Exchanges in a Recipe or Food Product

Combining exchanges is where a lot of people got confused.

By itself, the exchange lists were simple to follow. That wasn't real life though. People wanted to know how to count the exchanges when eating out, as well as how do you convert your favorite recipes into Weight Watchers exchanges?

It wasn't complicated to do, but it was definitely different than most people were used to. It took a bit of math to figure out.

The exchanges were based on the diabetic exchange program, but since most people weren't diabetics, they had to learn how to use exchanges in recipes and products.

For example:

If you whipped up a batch of muffins, those muffins would include flour, milk, fat, an egg, some sugar, and maybe some mashed fruit or vegetable. You would have to figure out the total number of exchanges each ingredient added to the entire recipe and then divide those totals by the number of servings the recipe made.

Weight Watchers recipes and products made that chore easier by telling you how to count the recipe or product in your daily totals, but if you wanted to convert your own recipes into exchanges, there really wasn't a best way to do that.

For me, it was easier to take everything in the recipe that didn't easily divide by 4 (a quarter of an exchange) and place it into my weekly extra calories. It created fewer headaches and frustrations doing it that way.

Recipes do have to be played with a bit to make them fit nicely into the formula.

You'll find the same thing with products like tomato sauce that don't fit the basics.

Back then, we used canned tomatoes whipped up in the blender for a sugar-free tomato sauce, but it wasn't as convenient, nor tasty as the real thing. It took several hours to boil a spaghetti sauce down to the point where it was thick enough to use.

Later on, the Quick Start program helped us to work those kinds of things into our daily totals, but initially, we had to get pretty creative to make the Weight Watchers diet work.

The Weight Watchers Quick Start Program

In doing research on the Quick Start Program, I found a lot of people on the web who just used the calories assigned to each exchange section and built their own list of portion sizes and exchanges from that. Many of them said that it's working quite well for them.

There is a lot of conflicting information about the Quick Start Programs on the web. People remember different things. That's because it was actually divided into three different programs.

There was the Weight Watchers Quick Start Programand then
Quick Start Plus followed a year or two later. Still later, a third program surfaced. After reading through several forum posts and visiting the various links that people provided there, I've been able to piece together what the parameters for those different diets were.

In an upcoming post, I plan to talk about these Quick Start programs, especially since most people looking for the Old Weight Watchers Exchange Program are actually looking for one of the Quick Start diets instead.

If you haven't subscribed to my blog by email, you might want to do that, so you don't miss that post.


  1. I'm a great lover of the food exchange diets, too. I know I did very well on Weight Watchers when they were the food exchange diet. I really lost my weight. But once they introduced the points system, nearly all my weight went right back on. I really struggled with Weight Watchers. I remember looking high and low for their food exchange on the internet. The only other place was to go to Amazon and buy the older cookbooks that have the exchange system but then I came across Kim Bensen's Weight Loss Program a couple of years ago. It was what I had been looking for. And the weight started to come off again. To this day, I have lost 145 pounds and still have some more to go. It is a really good program and is a lot (and I mean a lot) like Weight Watchers old program. You can even tweak it to be high protein (which is what I do) or high carbs or balanced. I'm really glad that I came across it. Here is the website to check out. www.kimbensen.com. I think that you might be very pleased.

    1. I was so inspired by your comment that I ordered Kim Benson's book from the library. Good job on the weight loss.

  2. I have found all of the info I need on the web. Although, the old cookbooks would have been quicker and easier.

  3. I really appreciate the extensive research you shared here. Lord knows I have been on diet after diet, and wished I would have tracked the effects. I am so grateful you bring in info, like the issue of leptin, but I am having a hard time understanding what your final thought is with regards to how to maintain a lower weight. I understand that you favor the earlier version, and I totally agree (I really liked the fat and fiber program, which I can't find) BUT what do you learn about leptin, am I missing that part? Did you have to lower your calories to maintain? What are you recommending: follow the earlier Ww plan and then.....what? thank you again very much, look forward to hearing your response!

    1. I wrote the Weight Watcher's posts because I get a lot of email from folks looking for the various older Weight Watchers programs and wondering if I had any of the info. I didn't write them as a recommendation, although having gone on both exchange and points programs throughout my life, I do prefer the older versions of the WW plan.

      When I reached 160 pounds on this particular exchange plan, my hunger level suddenly went through the roof. I started thinking about food all of the time and had other signs of starvation mode as well. From my experience with low-carb diets and Lyle McDonald's bodybuilding forum, I learned about Leptin levels crashing during dieting and how some people need to take a "break" from dieting when that happens. Since I didn't know about leptin when doing the WW exchange plan, I simply quit the diet and went back to eating unconsciously instead of moving to a manageable maintenance plan.

      If I had it all to do over again, I would have figured out what it took to maintain my losses. I didn't, so I don't really feel qualified to tell others how to maintain their weight. All I can do is share my individual experiences or share how a certain diet program is structured and supposed to work.

      On low carb, I found that drastically lowering calories was the only way I could get the weight off further, once that magical number of 160 was hit again. After crunching the numbers and taking a realistic look at what it would take to get down to 125 and stay there, I decided that for me, it wasn't worth being hungry all the time for the rest of my life. My maintenance calories would have been far too low to be comfortable.

  4. I agree with the older versions being better, but I think its wonderful that you discovered why. If I understand you correctly, its the timing of the food, not just the sloppy dieting, that the old WW keeps the body fed and where Leptin works the best? What do you recommend for maintaining, knowing what you know now, I didn't find that part in your article... do you mean you went lower on the calorie restriction to maintain? Thanks

    1. Over the past couple of years, I've been investigating a wide variety of diets and taking a hard look at where I've been, where I am now. I've learned that low-carb diets (20 grams per day type) really upset our bodies at the cellular and instinctual level. It brings out the body's need for survival, but that can happen with any diet if calorie restriction is kept up long enough. The problem of the body wanting to refill its fat stores isn't really particular to low carb. I just have more experience with low carb than balanced diets.

      Points totally ignores nutrition and doesn't teach people how to feed the body what it needs to functions correctly. From what I've seen, watching people go on-and-off of the various points programs, I think the body adapts much quicker than it does with the older programs. People just don't lose the weight. Plus, they're hungry. Protein is low, fats are low, and the body thinks it's in a famine situation.

      The older WW programs were super nutritious and well-balanced, although today, I think they were too low in fat. Broiling your hamburger meat is a bit extreme. By "fat and fiber" that you mentioned in the above comment, do you mean their old low-glycemic diet? The one that high in fiber to keep you full? I never tried that one.

      Leptin drops eventually on any diet, but you can bump levels back up by eating a meal high in carbs. That's the theory behind cheat meals. I've also seen people experience good results by staggering the number of carbs and calories they eat each day. Keeps the body guessing, and Leptin doesn't drop like a rock the way it does with typical low-calorie or very low-carb diets.

      Today, I have Graves Disease and find it difficult to lose weight at all. While 90 percent of those with this problem lose weight and become skinny skinny, 10 percent of us go completely the other way. The body packs on the pounds in an effort to survive the side-effects of the increased metabolism, so I'm almost right back when I started from in 2007.

      What I've learned over the years is that no matter what you do, the body adapts to it, sooner or later. Those who succeed in carving off the weight and maintaining, often don't have a lot of weight to lose initially. Maybe 50 pounds or less. They reach maintenance before the body figures out what they're doing. Those of us who are severely obese aren't as lucky. The body puts on the brakes long before we reach a healthy weight.

      I'm seriously considering creating a "back into a healthy diet" plan, similar to the Weight Watchers exchange programs, where I can make small lifetime changes and head in that direction, rather than shocking the body all at once by dieting. But I don't know. For 2 months now, I've been eating half portions, but the weight hasn't budged. I'm as confused as what to do as everyone else.

    2. Using the WW Quick Success Program Cookbook as a program guide & using the maximum food exchanges and averaging in weekly optional calories divided by 7, the calorie breakdown per progressive weeks is:
      1080 calories Week 1
      1170 calories Week 2
      1190 calories Week 3
      1200 calories Week 4
      1300 calories Week 5 and beyond
      Based on WW data:
      1 Fruit Ex = 60 c
      1 Fat Ex = 40 c
      1 Protein Ex = 70 c
      1 Bread Ex = 80 c
      1 Milk Ex = 90 c

    3. Thank you so much for sharing all of that. That was really helpful!

  5. I have bought all the older versions of Weight Watchers cookbooks when they were the food exchange diet. Each one has the breakdown of the food exchange program. I even created a file of other food exchange diets as well. You can find the older WW cookbooks on Amazon. It's better to stay on the "healthy" side when taking the weight. That way it isn't too much of a shock to the bodily system. Exchange system is the safest way to go. Points??????? I'm not to crazy about. You can also try TOPS(Take off Pounds Sensibly). 1. They are cheaper and 2. They use the food exchange system. Good Luck everyone.

    1. I really appreciate your comment and insights. I tried looking for the old WW cookbooks last year at garage sales, but didn't find any here. I'll have to look for them on Amazon. Thanks. Didn't know that TOPS used an exchange plan. That's great to know.

  6. I agree. The older versions of Weight Watchers were a lot better because they were based off of the food exchange diet. Doing half portions is not the best thing to do. I have the older Weight Watchers cookbooks that have the breakdown of the exchanges. Another good book to check into is called HELP (Healthy Exchanges Lifetime Plan) There are a couple of programs that are out there that use the Food Exchange System. 1. Kim Bensen's Weight Loss (this is a lot like the Weight Watchers Program when they were the food exchange diet). You can find her plan online. You can do it online or you can purchase the plan through the site. TOPS is another food exchange program that can be done online or through their meetings. Good luck on your efforts. I hope this information helps everyone who prefer the food exchange diet.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, info, and insights. I'm going to look into your suggestions. I really appreciate you sharing about the other exchange programs you're aware of. That's extremely helpful.

  7. This is additional information to my May 31, 2016 post. In my previous post where I mention Kim Bensen's Weight Loss Program. She also does her meetings online now as well. This is really good especially if you don't live in the Shelton, CT area. Most of her meetings (both past and current) are accessible through her website. And if you join the program you have full access to everything there. I have now done her program now for a few years and have lost a little more than 200 lbs. It's one of the best food exchange diet that I know of. And I so enjoy her online meetings. Very encouraging and motivational. Check it out and see for yourself.


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