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For Weight Loss, a Peer-Led Group Works Best

Weight Watchers sessions win over pros' help

En español | It turns out that while group sessions with a professional may help, more people lose more weight more quickly by attending group sessions led by a regular person who has successfully slimmed down.

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Delighted women standing in line to be weighed - weight watchers-type groups work

What weight-loss program is right for you? — Jose Luis Pelaez, Inc./Blend Images/Corbis

That's the finding of a new federally funded study that compared three types of weight-loss treatments: Weight Watchers, which is a group-based plan led by a trained peer counselor; group sessions with a behavioral therapy professional; or a combination of both approaches.

The researchers, led by Angela Pinto, an assistant professor of psychology at Baruch College in New York, randomly assigned 141 overweight and obese men and women (average age 50) to 48 weeks of treatment in one of the three plans. Those assigned to the combination approach had 12 weeks with a health professional followed by 36 weeks on Weight Watchers.

The results surprised the researchers, who had expected that a stint with a therapist followed by participation in Weight Watchers, one of the largest, most successful weight-loss programs, would yield the best results. Not so.

While all the groups lost weight, the Weight Watchers group lost more weight than the combo-approach group — an average 13-pound loss versus an 8-pound loss. Those who saw just a health professional lost about 12 pounds.

More important, more people on Weight Watchers alone lost substantial weight than on either of the other plans. By the end of the study, 37 percent on Weight Watchers had lost at least 10 percent of their starting weight. In contrast, only 15 percent of the combination group and just 11 percent of the professionally led group achieved that goal.

Psychologist Patrick O'Neil, director of the Weight Management Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, said he also was surprised at the poor results in the combination treatment group. "This suggests that disrupting one type of program to begin another is probably not a good idea," he says.

O'Neil, who has led research for both Weight Watchers and for university-based weight-loss programs, says the content and format of the programs, more than the type of group leader, likely influenced the study results. Weight Watchers, he says, offers user-friendly flexibility, including "meetings at various locations on different days and times," compared with a standardized behavioral program that may meet at only one time at one location.

One disappointing note to men: Because 90 percent of the study participants were women, Pinto and her colleagues wrote that the results cannot be generalized to males.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and published this month in the journal Obesity.

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