April 8, 2003 (New York) -- Dieters are more likely to lose pounds and keep them off when they get additional support. Researchers at a news conference say that structured weight-loss programs not only help people lose more weight but also help maintain that new weight.
In his research, Stanley Heshka, PhD, compared dieters randomly assigned to either a self-help regimen or to a structured commercial weight-loss program -- in this case, Weight Watchers. The well-known company did fund the study, but investigators conducted the clinical trial independent of the firm.
After the first year of the study, researchers found that the self-help participants lost and maintained about three pounds, while the Weight Watchers group lost and maintained about 9 to 11 pounds. After two years, the self-helpers' weight went back to near normal, while the Weight Watchers set had gained a little weight but had still kept a loss of about six pounds.
The study appears in the April 9 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.
More weight-loss news from a special obesity issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Researchers have not yet figured out the particular reasons why the commercial weight-loss program was more effective than the self-help regimen, but Heshka says the structure and assistance provided by Weight Watchers may be important factors.
"It keeps your attention focused," says Heshka, the lead researcher of the study and a research associate at the New York Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital. "It may be support in a sense that others are giving you hints about what works for them, others are encouraging you, and may actually be motivating you to try harder."
The group support environment surrounding certain weight-loss programs may be more effective for women, Heshka says, because they tend to like the idea of sharing success and failure stories more than men. He points to the fact that 85% of the participants at Weight Watchers are women.
In another study published in the same issue of JAMA, researchers led by Deborah F. Tate, PhD, of the Brown University School of Medicine/Miriam Hospital in Providence, R.I., randomly assigned people who were at risk of type 2 diabetes to two different Internet weight-loss programs.
Both sets of dieters were given at least one face-to-face counseling on proper nutrition, exercise, and behavior change. They were both given a private Web site with a tutorial on weight loss, and each week, all patients received educational materials and were prompted to submit his/her weight information. Only one of the groups, however, also received at least weekly email support from a professional therapist as part of their weight-loss program.
After one year, investigators found that those who received email counseling fared better in losing and maintaining the weight loss (roughly 9 pounds) compared with their counterparts (4 pounds).
At least one expert isn't surprised about the role counseling has apparently played in both Tate's and Heshka's studies. "If you're with somebody who's encouraging you, somebody who's telling you that you look good, you're not fighting anything. You're making these people a part of your life," says Catherine D. DeAngelis, MD, MPH, editor of JAMA, who notes that lifestyle changes are proven to work for weight loss.
Another authority on weight management, however, says it's too soon to tell what exact component works best for losing and keeping off the pounds. "We don't really have the research to tease out whether it's support or physical activity or diet that's important," says Susan Z. Yanovski, MD, executive director of the National Task Force on Prevention and Treatment of Obesity with the National Institutes of Health.
Successful weight loss today, says Yanovski, involves multiple elements, including a modest decrease in caloric intake and increasing exercise -- necessary parts of any weight-loss program.