Obese patients who enrol on commercial programmes such as Weight Watchers lose twice as much weight as those just given advice by the nanny state and doctors research suggests. A paper in the The Lancet found that overweight people who spent a year attending group meetings, being weighed regularly and following diet tips lost an average of 11.1lb (5.06kg).
This is twice the 4.9lb (2.25kg) shed by those who received weight-loss information at their local doctors’ surgery.
In addition, those on the Weight Watchers programme had lower cholesterol levels and smaller waist measurements, making them at lower risk of developing diabetes and heart disease.
Academics commenting on the study say public sector health services – such as the NHS – should consider paying for patients to attend private weight-loss classes than providing treatment themselves.
The study was carried out by Dr Susan Jebb at the UK Medical Research Council in Cambridge and colleagues but funded through a grant from Weight Watchers itself to the MRC.
It states that 1 billion people worldwide are overweight and 300 million obese, putting them at high risk of illness and early death and placing a heavy burden on healthcare systems.
The researchers took 770 overweight and obese patients, mainly middle-aged women, in Germany, Austria and Britain and gave half of them free access to a Weight Watchers programme while the others received “standard care” through their GP.
Those on the commercial scheme were encouraged to attend weekly weigh-ins as well as counselling and group support meetings, and were able to monitor their food intake and activity levels online as well as access meal ideas and take part in community discussions.
After 12 months, weight loss among those in Weight Watchers was “significantly greater” than those given GP advice, and they were twice as likely to have lost more than 5 per cent of their initial bodyweight.
In addition, their insulin, glucose and total cholesterol levels were found to be lower while their waist circumferences had dropped by an average 2.2in (5.60cm) compared with 1.2in (3.16cm) among those on the GP course. Both groups ended up with lower blood pressure.
The researchers say the commercial programme could be more successful at changing people’s behaviour because it offers more frequent weighing and peer support.
The paper claims it could also prove cheaper, at about £50-60 for 12 weeks, because it involves larger groups of people.
The authors conclude: “Data from our study suggest that referral by a primary health-care professional to a commercial weight loss programme that provides regular weighing, advice about diet and physical activity, motivation, and group support can offer a clinically useful early intervention for weight management in overweight and obese people that can be delivered at large scale.”
Kate Jolly and Paul Aveyard from the University of Birmingham write in an accompanying opinion piece: “Evidence that weight loss achieved by fairly brief interventions can be sustained long term without continued support would be valuable.
“However, present evidence shows that the commercial programme assessed by Jebb and colleagues provides a more effective weight management service than does primary care, and is widely available. Such programmes are likely to be an important component of the medical management of obesity in primary care.”