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Weight Watchers Produces Bigger 'Losers' Than Standard Weight-Loss Care

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 7 (HealthDay News) -- Dieters may be more likely to slim down if they are referred to a commercial program such as Weight Watchers than if they battle the bulge with primary health care providers alone, a new study finds.

Overweight adults in Germany, Australia and the United Kingdom who were referred to Weight Watchers by a primary health care provider lost about twice as much weight over a year as dieters assigned to standard weight-loss care, according to the study, which was funded by Weight Watchers and published Sept. 8 in The Lancet.

"The greater weight loss in participants assigned to the commercial program was accompanied by greater reductions in waist circumference and fat mass than in participants assigned to standard care, which would be expected to lead to a reduction in the risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease," the researchers said in a journal news release.

The study involved 772 overweight and obese adults who were randomly assigned to a year of diet care overseen by a primary care professional or to 12 months' free membership at a local Weight Watchers group.

Fifty-four percent of the standard-care dieters completed the 12-month study, compared to 61 percent of the Weight Watchers group.

Those who stuck with their standard diet lost an average of about 7 pounds, while those who attended Weight Watchers shed nearly 15 pounds on average. Also, the Weight Watchers participants were more than three times as likely to have dropped 5 percent or more of their body weight compared to the standard dieters, said the researchers.

A quarter of those randomly assigned to work with a primary care professional did lose 5 percent of their body weight, however -- a feat the researchers said confirmed the capability of primary care professionals to deliver the support and care needed for people to lose weight and keep it off during a year's time.

The researchers suggested that the structure of the commercial program -- including group support, weekly weighing, instruction about diet and physical activity, and motivation -- can be a clinically useful tool for battling overweight and obesity on a large scale. However, they acknowledged that a cost-benefit analysis and further research is needed to see if the gains (or, in this case, losses) could be maintained over time.

The researchers also said the findings suggested that overweight people were more likely to lose weight if they were referred to a commercial weight-loss program by a physician or another primary care provider than if they enrolled on their own.

"The similar weight losses achieved in Australia, Germany, and the U.K. implies that this commercial program, in partnership with primary care providers, is a robust intervention that is generalizable to other economically developed countries," the authors said in the news release.

"This kind of research is important so that we can identify clinically effective interventions to treat obesity," they added.

The study was conducted by Susan Jebb, head of Diet and Population Health at the Medical Research Council Human Nutrition Research unit in Cambridge, England, and colleagues.

In an accompanying journal commentary, Dr. Kate Jolly and Dr. Paul Aveyard of the School of Health and Population Sciences at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, noted that obesity plays a leading role in about 2.8 million deaths a year. "Cost-effectiveness is likely to be a key factor as to whether such commercial programs become part of publicly funded health care," they wrote, "but the low cost of these programs . . . makes the case for incorporation intuitively appealing."

More information

For tips on weight loss, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

-- Margaret Steele

SOURCE: The Lancet, news release, Sept. 7, 2011

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