If you’ve recently resolved to lose weight, you may increase your odds of success by joining a structured weight loss program, according to a recent study by researchers at the New York Obesity Research Center, Columbia University.
The two-year study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, followed more than 420 women and men who were randomly assigned to one of two groups: a non-structured, self-help group or a commercial weight loss program. The self-help group had two 20-minute counseling sessions with a nutritionist and received information on exercise and healthy eating. The other group participated in the Weight Watchers program, which involved weekly group meetings, a food and activity plan, and strategies for changing eating behaviors. At the end of two years, this group achieved better weight loss overall, averaging about six pounds, versus just one pound in the self-help group. (The study was supported by a grant from Weight Watchers International, and its chief scientist was a member of the research team.)
This may not sound like a great deal of weight, but it is significant, stresses Tom Wadden, Ph.D., director of the Weight and Eating Disorders Program at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The people in the commercial weight loss program lost about 5 and a half percent of their body weight at the end of one year, versus 1 and a half percent in the self-help group,” Dr. Wadden says. “That’s important because other studies have shown that losing this amount of weight is associated with a reduction in risk for certain diseases, such as diabetes.”
“The study also underscores a key problem, which is keeping the weight off,” he says, noting that both groups gained back some of the weight in year two. “It requires constant vigilance.”
But this first-ever randomized clinical trial of a commercial weight loss program offers concrete evidence that a structured program combining diet, exercise, and behavior modification can offer better results than going it alone. And now, says Dr. Wadden, “consumers have some idea about what they might expect to lose for the amount of money they will pay.” He notes that cost is an important consideration when looking at Weight Watchers or any commercial weight loss program, such as Jenny Craig, eDiets, or L.A. Weight Loss.
“The great thing about these programs is that it’s easy to enroll,” says Dr. Wadden. “You can just show up and be accepted.”
Does this mean you can’t be successful on your own? Not necessarily. Dr. Wadden estimates that 90 percent of people trying to lose weight are do-it-yourselfers, and some of them will achieve their goal. If you’ve never made a concerted effort to lose weight, or if you’ve succeeded before, starting out on your own may make the most sense.
“Everyone can start with some simple steps: cut out 500 to 1,000 calories per day, minimize the fat and sugar in your diet, reduce portion sizes, and increase physical activity,” Dr. Wadden advises. “Have modest expectations. Set a start date, and track your progress toward a short-term deadline. And get some support, either from friends or family.”
But if you’ve tried those common-sense strategies and failed, or you suspect you need a more structured approach, a commercial weight loss program may be right for you. On the other hand, it may not be enough.
“It’s easy to drop out of these programs, and you may know that more intensive monitoring is for you,” says Dr. Wadden, especially if you’ve tried them in the past. In this case, you may be better off seeking help from health care professionals who specialize in weight loss and nutrition, particularly if your Body Mass Index (a ratio of weight to height) is close to 30 or more. Being overweight (BMI 25 to 30) or obese (BMI 30 or higher) increases your risk for serious diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
“Think about what you need,” Dr. Wadden advises. “Is it enough for you to get on a scale every week and simply be held accountable? Or do you need the more detailed information about options for exercise and nutrition that a medical setting can offer? And what has or hasn’t worked for you in the past?”
Whatever weight loss strategy you choose, he says, there is really just one key to success: persistence.
Finding the Right Diet for You
If you’re considering a commercial weight loss program, Dr. Wadden recommends asking a number of questions before you join:
- What are the staff’s qualifications?
- What guidelines does it offer for diet, physical activity, and behavior modification?
- Will it teach me how to maintain weight using everyday foods, instead of relying on meal replacement shakes or packaged foods provided by the weight loss program?
- What kind of social support does it offer?
- What are the possible health risks?
- What does it cost? Dr. Wadden says that a cost of $15 to $20 per pound lost is “reasonable.”
- How long will the program last?