Commercial weight-loss programs like Weight Watchers may be just as effective in losing weight as clinical programs, and the key ingredient to success in both programs is buddying up, according to a new study published Tuesday in the journal Obesity.
In the study, 141 overweight and obese adults were randomly assigned into one of three groups -- a weight-loss behavioral program led by a health professional, or Weight Watchers, led by peers who had achieved their own weight-loss success, or a combination of both programs.
Overweight and obese adults who participate in any of the three weight-loss treatments that involved group counseling, whether it was with a health professional or with peers, as well as physical activity and diet change lost a significant amount of weight nearly a year later, the study found.
"When people who are working on a similar problem get together, they can support each other so they don't feel alone in this weight-loss journey," said Angela Pinto, assistant professor of psychology at Baruch College of the City University of New York and lead researcher.
"With the group idea, there's a sense of belonging," said Pinto, adding that participants may be more likely to complete their weight-loss goal when others are working with them.
Participants in both programs lost about the same amount of weight in total. However, more than double the number of participants enrolled in the Weight Watchers program lost 10 percent or more of their starting weight compared with the other two groups.
The outcome of the study showed that Weight Watchers can produce clinically relevant weight loss, according to Pinto.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans are considered overweight or obese, according to the American Dietetic Association.
The study is the first to provide a head-to-head comparison between a commercial weight loss program and a clinical weight loss program.
The findings suggest that people who are looking to lose weight more affordably can still do so successfully, the researchers said.
While counseling by a health care professional is considered the gold standard treatment for weight loss, it is also considered more costly than alternative programs.
The cost for Weight Watchers varies depending on location but is typically about $40 a month to attend weekly meetings and get access to the program resources. Some health insurance companies reimburse part of the cost of the program.
Participants who stuck with either of the programs and continued to be engaged tended to lose the most weight, the study found.
"That's important for people to think about when they want to know what can facilitate sustained weight loss," said Pinto.
According to Keith Ayoob, director of nutrition clinic Rose F. Kennedy Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the group environment may make some participants more likely to stick through the program.
"After a certain point, the 'education process' of weight loss becomes almost secondary to the staying motivated," he said.
And not all overweight or obese adults benefit from group-based programs, said Ayoob.
Women are more often successful in these programs than men, he said.
In fact, some may be more successful in individual counseling in order to sustain their weight loss, according to Ayoob.
"Some people really need additional psychotherapy to 'unlock the blocks' to successful weight management," he said.
The study did not follow the groups beyond a year to see whether the participants maintained their weight loss, which is an important part of defining success.
"Weight-loss maintenance is a big challenge and clearly has an impact on health parameters," said Pinto. "We know that clinically important weight loss, between 5 to 10 percent, can positively affect health."