The Weight Watchers program works better than primary-care management for weight loss, according to a new randomized trial. Participants in the program showed greater benefits in cholesterol and diabetes risk factors as well as shedding twice as many pounds.
But before you rush out to sign up, Susan B. Roberts, director of Tufts HNRCA Energy Metabolism Laboratory, cautions, I think the takeaway here is not that the average result for Weight Watchers in this study was so wonderful- because it still didnt get people to a normal weight-but that primary care was apparently a terrible way to try to lose weight.
In the new study, published in The Lancet, Susan A. Jebb, PhD, of the UK Medical Research Councils Human Nutrition Research Unit, and colleagues followed 772 overweight participants. The subjects were mostly women, average age 47, and lived in Britain, Germany and Australia; average body mass index (BMI) was 31 and waist circumference was 39.4 inches.
The participants were randomly split into two groups: One group enrolled in Weight Watchers, with the monthly subscription fee waived but with participants paying for their own food, while the other group tried to lose weight under the supervision of healthcare professionals providing dietary information.
After a year, Weight Watchers participants lost an average of 11.1 pounds, compared to 5 pounds in the control group. Both groups suffered high dropout rates, with 46% of the control group and 39% of Weight Watchers participants quitting before 12 months. Among those who stuck with the study for the full year, weight loss was even better: 14.6 pounds on Weight Watchers and 7.2 for the control group.
Those enrolled in Weight Watchers also saw significant improvements in other health measures, compared to the control group. Both overall and among only those who stuck with the study, Weight Watchers participants experienced greater improvements in measures of insulin, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and the ratio of total to HDL cholesterol.
Jebb and colleagues suggested that their findings point to the possible large-scale effectiveness of physicians referring overweight patients to commercial weight-loss programs.
The study didnt compare Weight Watchers to competing commercial weight-loss plans. Earlier this year, a comparison in Consumer Reports rated the Jenny Craig plan as most effective, while US News & World Report ranked Weight Watchers at the top. It could be that simply having a plan-whichever one suits you best-is better than going it alone (or with only a physicians general guidance) for weight loss.
TO LEARN MORE: The Lancet, online first; abstract at dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(11)61344-5.