Weight Watchers scores points over local doctors in new study

Posted Sept. 08, 2011, at 5:08 a.m.

Weight Watchers, which helped singer Jennifer Hudson and British royal Sarah Ferguson slim down by assigning points to the food they eat, works better than the local doctor, according to a new study published Thursday.

Patients shed double the weight on Weight Watchers than on a standard program run by health professionals in a 12-month study published in the medical journal The Lancet. Those who completed the study lost an average 14.8 pounds on Weight Watchers, compared with 7.3 pounds on standard care.

The study, funded by New York-based Weight Watchers and conducted independently by Britain’s Medical Research Council, also showed those enrolled in the commercial program continued to lose weight longer after the end of the test. Susan Jebb, the lead investigator, said she expected similar results from both groups and was surprised by the difference.

The trial included 772 overweight and obese adults in Australia, Germany and Britain. Participants benefited from features of the Weight Watchers program, including the regular weigh-ins, advice about physical activity and group support, according to the study’s authors. They were also more likely to continue eating a variety of foods, doctors said.

Participants are “learning skills they can use for managing their weight,” said Paul Aveyard of the School of Health and Population Sciences at the University of Birmingham in England, who co-wrote an accompanying comment in The Lancet. “Without that support system, it’s difficult to know.”

Weight Watchers International Inc., the world’s largest seller of diet programs, teaches participants to assign points to the food they eat, based on fat and calories, and sets a target of points they can’t exceed in a day. They are encouraged to attend regular meetings with fellow weight-watchers where food and physical activity are discussed. They are also weighed regularly so they can track their progress.

“In many countries, Weight Watchers sees thousands of people each week and the capacity to deliver lifestyle advice is greater than with health-care professionals, who are often over- stretched and find it difficult to allocate additional time for weight management,” Jebb wrote in an e-mail.

Weight Watchers has had a relationship with Britain’s National Health Service, the state-funded medical system, for seven years, said Zoe Hellman, the company’s head of Dietetics and Health Policy, in an interview. Weight Watchers funded the study to show how governments can use commercial programs to help reduce obesity, Hellman said.

“The health care implications and costs of obesity they simply can’t manage on their own,” she said. “We’re across countries. All health-care agencies have to do is tap into it.”

The study investigators found that participants on Weight Watchers were three times as likely to lose at least 5 percent of their body weight compared with those on standard care. Weight loss continued for about nine months in the Weight Watchers group, compared with only about four months in the standard group, according to Jebb.

Greater weight loss reduces the risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease and patients in the Weight Watchers group showed more improvement in insulin and cholesterol levels, Jebb said.

The affordability of Weight Watchers, at between $80 and $95 for 12 weeks, makes including it in publicly-funded health-care programs “intuitively appealing,” Aveyard and colleague Kate Jolly wrote in the linked comment.

“This evidence proves what we have believed for some time — that Weight Watchers is a highly effective complement to usual primary care,” Karen Miller-Kovach, chief scientific officer at Weight Watchers, said in a statement. “It seems that there is something very powerful in health professionals and Weight Watchers working together.”

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