Study Looks at Pounds Shed with Weight Watchers

By Alison McCook; Reuters Health, April 2003

NEW YORK - Although following Weight Watchers appears to help people shed more pounds than they would on their own, people who followed the program for two years lost an average of only six pounds, researchers said Tuesday.

But especially diligent participants -- who attended at least 78 percent of the weekly meetings -- lost an average of 11 pounds after two years of the program, the authors note.

The average weight loss among Weight Watchers participants "is not very much in comparison to what people hope they will lose, or what people need to lose in order to reach the desired, svelte self," study author Dr. Stanley Heshka told Reuters Health.

These findings suggest that people who need to lose a significant amount of weight fairly quickly for medical reasons may want to opt out of Weight Watchers and similarly structured programs, said Heshka, who is based at the New York Obesity Research Center, St. Luke's/Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. In the program, participants attend weekly meetings and receive guidelines for exercise and how to pick the healthy foods and portions.

But these findings, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, do not suggest that Weight Watchers holds no benefit for people struggling with their weight, he added.

People enrolled in Weight Watchers shed more pounds than did people who were simply provided with information about smart eating and exercising, who lost, on average, less than one-half of one pound after two years.

Furthermore, while, on average, participants lost only small amounts of weight while enrolled in the structured program, some lost much more, with the maximum amount of weight loss reaching around 50 pounds.

The structured program "seems to hold advantages over trying to lose the weight by yourself," Heshka said.

For people who are not yet obese but are experiencing an increase in weight, or have a family history of problems that can be aggravated by excess weight -- such as heart disease or diabetes -- a structured program like Weight Watchers may have a significant impact on health, he said.

In some instances, "even small amounts of weight loss, weight maintenance -- preventing yourself from gaining more weight -- might be medically important," Heshka noted.

"Whatever amount you can lose and keep off represents a victory," he added.

Indeed, Dr. Catherine DeAngelis, editor in chief of JAMA, agreed that losing weight via any method is extremely difficult.

"Food intake is a habit," DeAngelis told Reuters Health. "And it's very hard to change those habits."

She added that while Weight Watchers and similar programs may work for some people, they clearly don't work for everyone. Programs have the best chances of working if they feel natural to the people following them, she noted, otherwise the weight loss is too difficult to maintain.

"It works as long as you stay with it," she said.

During the study, 423 men and women between the ages of 18 and 65 were either given a number to call to find the nearest Weight Watchers meeting and vouchers to attend, or provided with two brief counseling sessions with a nutritionist, then left to lose weight on their own.

In an interview, Heshka explained that Weight Watchers funded the current study, and he hoped that other weight loss programs will do the same.

"I wish that more commercial weight loss providers would do studies like this with their programs so the consumer could have some idea of what it is they're getting for their money," he said.

In a related study, published in the same issue of the journal, Dr. Deborah F. Tate of Brown University and Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island and her colleagues found that among people who followed a structured, online weight loss program, email counseling helps.

As part of counseling, a trained therapist would send participants frequent emails, answer their questions, and track their dieting progress.

When 92 overweight people followed the program for one year, those who received counseling lost an average of 10 pounds, relative to an average of only 4 1/2 pounds lost by those who did not receive counseling.

These findings suggest that people who need a structured program that is more convenient than regular group meetings -- which provide similar services to email counseling -- might benefit from an online program that includes counseling, Tate told Reuters Health.

"If convenience is one of the advantages of the Internet, perhaps this type of approach might be something we could use in the long-term in a convenient way for participants," she said.

SOURCE: Journal of the American Medical Association 2003;289:1792-1798,1833-1836.