More big losers make program the big winner over counsellors

IN A head-to-head contest pitting a pair of psychologist-led ”behavioural weight loss” programs against a 48-week membership to Weight Watchers, a new study found that subjects participating in the ubiquitous commercial program stuck with their regimen longer and shed a greater number of kilograms.

Compared to people who met regularly with a professional counsellor, those assigned to Weight Watchers were more likely to lose at least 10 per cent of their body weight by the 48-week mark. On this measure, Weight Watchers also bested a hybrid program that researchers had expected to be the most effective – a 12-week introductory course led by a clinical psychologist to jump start subjects’ weight loss, followed by 36 weeks of Weight Watchers.

The study, published on Tuesday in the journal Obesity, suggests that health professionals scrambling for ways to counsel overweight and obese patients might be best served by referring them to well-established commercial programs with a track record of working.

Each year, about 1.3 million members spend some $US5 billion on Weight Watchers products and services and attend more than 45,000 official meetings around the world.

The other weight-loss programs tested in the new study were led by health professionals trained in nutrition and behaviour management. By contrast, Weight Watchers meetings are led by peer counsellors – men and women who have lost significant amounts of weight in the program and then become mentors to others in the same struggle.

The study, led by a researcher from Baruch College in New York City, involved 141 people, mostly women, who were overweight or obese and was conducted without financial assistance from Weight Watchers International. Its findings echo the results of two clinical trials published last year – one in the British Medical Journal that was conducted by Britain’s National Health Service and another in The Lancet that was sponsored by Weight Watchers.

”Weight Watchers really can produce clinically meaningful weight loss for a lot of people,” said study leader Angela Marinilli Pinto. ”It can be very convenient for people to access, and professional programs don’t always have that convenience and accessibility.”

Pinto said the research team was surprised by how much better subjects fared using just Weight Watchers than when they combined it with a 12-week course she led herself.

On average, those on Weight Watchers shed about 6 kilograms after 48 weeks, while those in the combined program lost about 3.5 kilograms. Those who spent all 48 weeks with the professional counsellors lost about 5.4 kilograms – an amount that was judged to be statistically indistinguishable from those who used only Weight Watchers.

The researchers found Weight Watchers subjects attended more meetings, used the program’s electronic tools more frequently and were more likely to remain with the study to its end than were those in the other two groups. In all, 37 per cent of people in the Weight Watchers group lost 10 per cent of their body weight, compared with 15 per cent of those in the combination-therapy group and 11 per cent of those who did not use Weight Watchers at all.

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