Weight Watchers Tech Combo Beats Self-help for Weight Loss

Marlene Busko

October 17, 2013

Following the Weight Watchers program was more effective for weight loss among obese and overweight individuals than simply receiving information about diet and exercise — especially if patients not only attended meetings but also used the Weight Watchers app and online tools, a new randomized controlled trial demonstrates.

At the 6-month end point, patients in the Weight Watchers group had lost 4.6 kg (10.1 lb), whereas those in the self-help group had dropped only 0.6 kg (1.3 lb), on average.

The research, by Craig A. Johnston, PhD, and colleagues at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, was published online October 15 in the American Journal of Medicine.

Sherry Pagoto, PhD, from the University of Massachusetts, Worcester, who was not involved in the trial, praised the "real-world" study design, in which the patients in the Weight Watchers group attended sessions in the community. "Getting the counseling from Weight Watchers was the most important" predictor of weight loss, which emphasizes the importance of "face-to-face" visits, as well as the additional benefits to be gained from the app and online tools, she told Medscape Medical News.

But one limitation is that 89% of the patients were women, although this is typical in weight-loss studies, she observed. It remains to be seen whether obese men would be comfortable with this program: "If we refer them to Weight Watchers, are they going to go?" she wondered.

A New Look at Weight Watchers and Its New Tools

The evidence-based Weight Watchers intensive behavioral counseling program to lose weight has been studied in more than 80 peer-reviewed publications, but what has not previously been examined is how new technology tools are affecting the program. This is the first study to include 3 complementary ways to access the Weight Watchers program — meetings, mobile apps, and online tools — and to contrast weight loss with these methods with people trying to lose the pounds by themselves.

Dr. Johnson and colleagues sent an email invitation to eligible adults living in the Danbury, Connecticut area, who had to have a body mass index (BMI) of 27 to 40. They randomized 292 participants, mainly women, who had a mean age of about 46 years and a mean BMI of 33. About three quarters were deemed obese.

Those in the Weight Watchers group (n = 147) were encouraged to use all 3 modes of access — attending weekly meetings, using mobile Weight Watchers apps, and employing online tools (to track progress, get information, or link to discussion groups). Participants in the self-help arm (n = 145) received publicly available printed materials about safe weight-loss strategies. Other resources such as public-library materials, Web sites, and telephone numbers of health-promotion organizations offering free weight-control information were also made available.

The Weight Watchers program was made available free of charge to participants, and those in the self-help group were offered a free 6-month membership to Weight Watchers on completion of the trial.

Eight Times More Likely to Lose Meaningful Weight at 6 Months

The subjects were weighed at baseline, 3 months, and 6 months.

At 6 months, participants in the Weight Watchers study arm were 8 times more likely to lose 5% and 8.8 times more likely to lose 10% of their weight than participants in the self-help study arm.

"A weight loss of this magnitude is considered to be beneficial in reducing some of the negative effects of obesity, such as high blood pressure and glucose levels," Dr. Johnston and colleagues write. "Moreover, it exemplifies the intensive, multicomponent behavioral counseling approach recommended by the [US Preventive Services Task Force] USPSTF."

And among the patients in the Weight Watchers group, those accessing the program in all 3 ways to a high degree — that is, they attended more than half of the weekly meetings and used both the mobile app and the online tools 2 or more times a week — lost the most weight at 6 months (19 pounds).

"These findings suggest that the Weight Watchers program is effective in promoting significant weight loss in community-based settings and is a viable referral choice for clinicians' patients diagnosed with obesity," Dr. Johnston and colleagues conclude.

Weight Watchers: Accessible and One of Few Options Available

Dr. Pagoto said it would be good to see a longer-term study and to include people with higher BMIs.

Nevertheless, she says that "Weight Watchers is very accessible…and [clinicians] definitely should refer patients there," adding, "There aren't a lot of options — this one is relatively inexpensive and there are data to show it works."

If clinicians are faced with a patient who says "I already did that…it didn't work," they should encourage the patient to try the program again and follow up more regularly, which can improve the chance for success, she added.

Dr. Pagoto was also the lead author on a recent study examining a number of the most popular weight-loss apps for mobile phones. She and her colleagues found that existing options are adequate — and identified what they found to be the best ones — but they concluded there is much room for improvement. She notes that her study did not assess the Weight Watchers app because that required membership to access.

The study was supported by a grant from Weight Watchers International. The researchers and Dr. Pagoto have reported no relevant financial relationships.

Am J Med. Published Oct 15, 2013. Abstract

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