New study in The Lancet–the world’s leading general medical journal: Partnership between primary care physicians and Weight Watchers program result in greater weight loss in overweight and obese adults
A new, one-year global study published in The Lancet (September 7, 2011) indicates that overweight and obese adults referred to Weight Watchers, a community based provider of weight-loss services, lost more than twice as much weight when compared with those who received standard care.
The study, the first of its kind, included participants who were recruited by primary care practices in the UK, Germany and Australia. It was conducted by research teams led by Dr Susan Jebb, head of diet and population health at the Medical Research Council Human Nutrition Research Unit in Cambridge; Professor Hans Hauner at The Faculty of Medicine, Technische Universität München, Germany; and Professor Ian Caterson at the Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise and Eating Disorders, University of Sydney, Australia, and looked at weight loss among 772 people randomized to attend Weight Watchers or to receive standard weight loss treatment in their primary care practice over a 12 month period.
Participants assigned to Weight Watchers lost, on average, more than twice as much weight as those in the standard care group. They were also more than three times as likely to lose 10% or more of their initial weight. Moreover, 61% of patients in the Weight Watchers group finished the study having lost at least 5% of their body weight (32% did so in the standard care group). Weight loss between 5 and 10% is shown to have significant health benefits and reduces the risks of diabetes and heart disease.
The significantly greater weight loss among Weight Watchers participants was accompanied by significantly greater reductions in waist size and fat mass; lessening the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Obesity continues to be seen as a growing epidemic. In fact, The Lancet recently released a series of papers on obesity that predicted there could be 65 million more obese adults in the USA and 11 million more in the UK by 20301 – an estimate that makes the results of this study all the more relevant.
The data demonstrates how a brief intervention by the physician including referral to Weight Watchers can be successful on a large scale in helping those with excess weight achieve medically significant health benefits from losing weight.
Dr. Susan Jebb says: “Trials like this are vital to identify effective interventions to tackle obesity and provide the evidence to inform policy decisions. The similar weight losses achieved in Australia, Germany and the UK implies that this commercial program, in partnership with primary care providers, is a robust intervention which is likely to be generalizable to other economically developed countries with a Western lifestyle”.
This evidence comes as the problems of obesity worldwide result in huge demands on medical services, and is perceived as a global health problem. The World Health Organization estimates that one billion people worldwide are currently overweight and more than 300 million are obese. Excess weight in adults accounts for 44% of the global burden of diabetes, 23% of ischemic heart disease and 7 – 41% of certain cancers2 . Healthcare systems around the world whether public, private or combination are under pressure, and have a desire to respond to the obesity crisis.
People assigned to standard care reported attending one appointment per month, while those assigned to Weight Watchers reported attending three appointments each month.
Standard care was predominantly one to one with a primary care healthcare professional. In the UK this was almost always a nurse or healthcare assistant. In Germany this was almost always the family physician. In Australia it was a mixture of the two depending on practice set up.
Karen Miller-Kovach, Chief Scientific Officer, Weight Watchers International says: “The discrepancy in time spent between patients assigned to the two treatments suggests that those referred to Weight Watchers were able to be much more engaged and benefitted from the intense support the weekly meetings provided and made them feel more accountable for their weight loss efforts. This reinforces the importance of group support for long-term behavioral change and sustainable weight loss.”
Miller-Kovach continues: “This evidence proves what we have believed for some time – that Weight Watchers is a highly effective complement to usual primary care. It seems that there is something very powerful in health professionals and Weight Watchers working together that really works for patients.”
David Kirchhoff, President and CEO, Weight Watchers International says: “The Lancet study proves that Weight Watchers is part of the solution to help transform the health of nations. High and rising levels of overweight and obesity and the chronic disease that they cause put enormous pressure on limited and already overburdened healthcare resources. There is a clear need for practical treatment solutions that are proven effective, affordable and scalable to have a population-wide impact. This study adds significant evidence and credibility to the partnership between primary care and Weight Watchers as the leading front-line solution for meeting these criteria. We believe that these kinds of partnerships ultimately hold the key for addressing obesity in the short and long term.”
The study design was a randomized, prospective, controlled clinical trial, the gold standard in medical research.
As further proof of the effectiveness and scalability of this public health approach, physicians across the UK have been referring their overweight and obese patients to Weight Watchers for seven years. An independent audit of this real world experience, published in BMC Public Health in June 2011, shows that it consistently delivers effective weight loss outcomes when employed in routine health care3.
1 Wang YC et al (2011) Health and economic burden of the projected obesity trends in the USA and the UK, The Lancet, v. 378, i. 9793, p. 815 – 825
2 WHO. Global health risks: mortality and burden of disease attributable to selected major risks. World Health Organisation. 2009
3 Ahern A et al (2011) Weight Watchers on prescription: An observational study of weight change among adults referred to Weight Watchers by the NHS, BMC Public Health, 11, 434