Weight Watchers proven in study

Program more effective than behavioral counseling

WASHINGTON – In a head-to-head contest pitting a pair of psychologist-led “behavioral 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 more pounds.

Compared to people who met regularly with a professional counselor, those assigned to Weight Watchers were more likely to lose at least 10 percent 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 Tuesday in the journal Obesity, suggests that physicians scrambling for ways to counsel overweight and obese patients may 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 $5 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 behavior management. By contrast, Weight Watchers meetings are led by peer counselors – 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 the United Kingdom’s National Health Service and another in Lancet that was sponsored by Weight Watchers.

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

On average, those on Weight Watchers shed just over 13 pounds after 48 weeks, while those in the combined program lost just under eight pounds. Those who spent all 48 weeks with the professional counselors lost an average of just under 12 pounds – an amount that was judged to be statistically indistinguishable from those who only used Weight Watchers.

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


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