Watching the Weight Watchers: Do diet groups work?

Posted on: 09 September 2011 by Alexander Hay

Recent research suggests the once-weekly weigh-in is one of the best ways of losing weight. But can we take these findings at face value?

Despite our best efforts, weight loss is often a lost causeWeight gain is a problem for everyone these days, especially older people, whose metabolisms often retreat as waistbands expand. Now in the enviable position of having much more food than we could ever eat, and with less and less opportunity or need for exercise, what's the best way to deal with this problem?

It seems the answer lies in good old fashioned peer pressure. Or rather, slimming clubs, where the weekly ritual of meeting in a church hall or community centre with your fellow dieters seems to be the best spur of all:

...A study funded by the Medical Research Council – the results of which were first revealed a year ago in the Guardian – will encourage GPs to send overweight patients to the commercial organisation. Few other strategies work as well with severely overweight people, who risk heart disease, stroke and diabetes...

...The trial involved 772 overweight and obese adults who were randomly assigned a 12-month Weight Watchers course or standard care from their doctor. At the end of the year, those enrolled in the commercial programme lost an average of 5.1kg, compared with 2.2kg for the rest.

Not everybody completed the course. The weight loss among those who did was 6.7kg at Weight Watchers and 3.3kg for the rest. Those enrolled in the commercial programme were more than three times as likely to lose a substantial 5% of their bodyweight, compared with the others....

Good news then for dieters, and Weight Watchers too, whose effectiveness has been publicly demonstrated. The commercial opportunities are, needless to say, very promising:

...In a linked comment, Dr Kate Jolly and Dr Paul Aveyard from University of Birmingham say: "The low cost of these programmes (at present about £50–60 for 12 weeks) makes the case for incorporation intuitively appealing..."

What other weight loss franchises, like Slimming World and Jenny Craig, not to mention Tesco's own cheapo diet club, will think of that is not known. Expect all manner of funding from such organisations to start flooding into medical research in the coming few years.

But is the research itself legitimate? Interestingly, NHS Choices thinks so, but has the following caveats:

...This was a well-conducted study. Although it had some limitations, the overall results should be reliable. It should be noted that in the trial, which was sponsored by Weight Watchers, participants received free access to the programme, which may mean that their behaviour was not typical of people having to pay for the course themselves...

[Emphasis is mine.]

NHS Choices also points out that the experiment had a high drop out rate and little in the way of blind testing as the researchers needed to know who was dieting and how, though at least the random selection of test subjects was well run.

Naturally, NHS Choices also states what the initial reports did not – that dieting is seldom successful in the long run:

...Finally, the study does not address a common problem with weight loss: the difficulty of keeping the weight off in the long term. Future studies could look at this too, particularly in people who discontinue the programme once they have achieved their target weight.

And this brings us to the real problem with diet groups – they have a vested interest in keeping you turning up each week for that weigh-in and accompanying payment of dues. As private businesses, they make money by people being fat. (Indeed, Jenny Craig is owned by chocolate bar peddlers Nestle.) If these companies resolved obesity altogether, they would be out of business.

This is not to ascribe sinister motives to slimming clubs. After all, nurses, doctors and toothpaste manufacturers all depend on the frailties of the human body for a living too.

But it does mean there are no happy endings; that dieters either drop out over time, and put on weight again, or remain wedded to their fellow fat fighters, forever reliant on someone else looking over their shoulder as they eat.

The ultimate expression of this are the consultants who run these groups themselves. All successful dieters care of the program they now run, they are obliged to stay slim and keep everyone else on the straight and very narrow. It seems that with slimming clubs, there is no way out except back to the lard or ever deeper into the dieting web.

[SOURCES: The Guardian & NHS Choices]

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Alexander Hay

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