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Weight Watchers Gets Thumbs Up in Study

By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 9, 2012 -- Commercial weight loss programs may offer as good if not better weight loss results than those led by a health professional, according to a new study.

It's the first time the two types of group-based weight loss programs have been tested in a head-to-head comparison.

The results showed that people enrolled in a commercial weight loss program, Weight Watchers, lost as much weight as people in a professionally led behavioral weight loss program.

In fact, more than twice as many Weight Watchers participants lost at least 10% of their starting weight than those in a group led by a health professional or in a combination of the two weight loss programs.

Experts say the results may open up more affordable and effective weight loss options for the more than 70% of Americans classified as overweight or obese.

"I think this is a sign that we have learned from these weight loss programs led by a health professional," says Rebecca Krukowski, PhD, assistant professor in the department of preventive medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis. "Now we know that they can be disseminated by trained, lay health educators, including in commercial programs."

Weight Loss Programs Put to the Test

Researchers say it's the first study to compare weight loss results between commercial and professional weight loss programs, as well as look at whether combining the two programs produces better weight loss.

"We selected Weight Watchers because the philosophy was similar to professionally delivered programs in medical center settings," says researcher Angela Marinilli Pinto, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Baruch College at the City University of New York.

"They both encourage weight loss through balanced lifestyle change, dietary changes such as consuming a diet high in whole foods and lower in fats, and encourage physical activity," Pinto tells WebMD.

In the study, published in Obesity, 141 overweight and obese men and women were randomly divided into three groups and received one of the follwing, free of charge:

  • 48 weeks of nonsurgical, medically supervised weight loss treatment delivered by a health professional
  • 48 weeks of Weight Watchers, with group support led by a member who had successfully lost weight and maintained a healthy weight
  • A combination of 12 weeks in a medically supervised behavioral weight loss program followed by 36 weeks of Weight Watchers

By the end of the study, researchers found that people in the Weight Watchers group lost more weight -- an average of about 13 pounds -- than those in the combination group, who lost about 8 pounds.

Average weight loss in the professional weight loss program (about 12 pounds) was not significantly different from the other groups.

But more than one-third of the Weight Watchers participants lost 10% or more of their starting weight by the end of the study, compared with 15% in the combined group and 11% in the professional weight loss group.

Cost and Accessibility Differences

Researchers say group behavioral therapy delivered by a clinically trained professional is considered the "gold standard" in weight loss treatment.

But these professionally led programs are typically more expensive than commercial weight loss programs, or have limited availability at major academic health centers.

"Not everyone lives in an area close to a university that has health professionals performing weight control programs," says Krukowski.

Researchers say hospital-based weight loss programs available to the public typically range in price from $10 to $35 per week.

The cost of joining Weight Watchers is about $10 and includes member meetings and Internet-based eTools.

Krukowski says a key advantage of peer- or health educator-led weight loss programs is that the leader usually shares similarities with those enrolled in the program and can relate to them. They are also more familiar with their community and the issues they face than a health professional in a center miles away.

Krukowski says another plus of commercial weight loss programs is more flexible meeting times and locations, which can help people with busy schedules stick to their program and goals.

This study also shows that meeting attendance was an important factor in successful weight loss.

Pinto says better meeting attendance was linked to greater weight loss among all weight loss groups during the first half of treatment.

But this relationship was better maintained through the second half of the study by those in the Weight Watchers group and may help explain their success.

"People who continued to attend treatment did better," says Pinto. "Staying engaged in treatment is important in trying to work toward weight loss goals."

Pinto says the results suggest that more research is needed to help identify not only effective programs to help people lose weight, but also accessible ones.

"We need to better understand how to best offer treatment to individuals who want to lose weight given the high prevalence of overweight and obesity," says Pinto.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, and Weight Watchers International provided vouchers for participants to enroll in the program at no cost.

SOURCES: Pinto, A. Obesity, 2012. News release, Baruch College. Angela Marinilli Pinto, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, Baruch College of the City University of New York. Rebecca Krukowski, PhD, assistant professor, department of preventive medicine, University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

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