Weight Watchers' approach to dieting seems to tighten the belt more than other approaches to weight loss, according to a new study published in the Lancet.
The new research, which was funded by Weight Watchers International but conducted by the U.K. Medical Research Council, compared 772 overweight and obese adults in Australia, Germany and the U.K. Participants were randomly assigned to receive either 12 months of standard health care or a 12-month free membership to Weight Watchers.
"Our studies didn't compare different commercial weight-loss programs, but did test the general concept of whether the various schemes available might work better than the current standard care," Dr. Susan Jebb, lead author of the study, said during a presentation at the International Congress on Obesity. "Regardless of which commercial program people opt for, it's having a weekly weigh-in and support that seems to work. People are more likely to stick at it."
The study is not the first time the Weight Watchers regimen -- which is perhaps most famous for its points system -- has outperformed other strategies. In June, Weight Watchers topped the list of commercial diet plans ranked by U.S. News and World Reports.
In a May ranking by Consumer Reports, however, the weight-loss plan came in third. And those pounds have a price tag; charges can range up to $40 per month, depending on the plan customers choose.
Still, the system, which typically includes weekly group meetings, weigh-ins, group discussion and behavioral counseling among its components, garners at least some degree of praise from many diet and nutrition experts.
"Everyone is going to lose some weight here because there is a calorie deficit," said Keith Ayoob, director of the nutrition clinic at the Children's Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "But it's how you create it so people can comply to it that really makes a difference. People on Weight Watchers are probably more motivated to focus on long-term positive changes, and there's lots of peer encouragement."
"Blending sensible advice about diet and lifestyle with strong behavioral support, Weight Watchers, quite simply, works," said Dr. David Katz, founder of the Yale Prevention Center. "More attention to weight management in primary care is warranted. This study suggests that more attention can mean better outcomes."
In the most recent study, participants adhering to the Weight Watchers plan received the full range of services provided by the program, including access to Internet-based discussion boards and systems to monitor food intake and weight change, as well recipes and meal ideas. Those in the standard care group received weight loss advice and guidelines for treatment from their family physicians.
After 12 months, Weight Watchers participants lost an average of 11 pounds. Those who received standard care lost an average of 5 pounds.
Karen Miller-Kovach, Weight Watchers International's chief scientific officer, said that the study highlights Weight Watchers benefits when complemented with usual primary care.
"Weight Watchers [patients] were able to be much more engaged and benefited from the intense support the weekly meetings provided and made them feel more accountable for their weight loss efforts," said Miller-Kovach. "This reinforces the importance of group support for long-term behavioral change and sustainable weight loss."
Weight Watchers is a nutrition points-driven plan within a group support system that is meant to create healthy eating habits while encouraging exercise.
Katz noted that the better success rate in a group-based program highlights an issue that is often overlooked.
"Weight control is not really a 'clinical' issue," said Katz. "It plays out in parks and playgrounds, offices and schools, kitchens and cafeterias. While clinicians can, and should, be part of the solution, we can never be more than part of the solution."
And while no food is off-limits, a points system for foods allows a person to maintain portion control.
"Weight Watchers sort of decriminalizes eating," said Ayoob. "It teaches how to play the hand you're dealt with in terms of weight and body image. And that seems to work for people."
About 1 billion people worldwide are overweight, and 300 million are obese, according to the World Health Organization. To solve the problem, nutrition experts note, even small incremental weight loss can dramatically change the landscape of the obesity epidemic, and the public health outcomes that come along with excessive weight.