AURORA | Commercial weight loss programs like Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers may be more effective in losing weight than self-directed apps or diets, a study revealed last week. But, scientists warn that there may not be enough substantive evidence to dismiss those other plans and that behavior — not just exercise and dieting — is perhaps the most important aspect of any diet.
The results were published April 6 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, and local wellness experts agree with the assessment.
Dr. James Hill, executive director of the University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center in Aurora, said offering empirical evidence of the plans’ effectiveness can help patients. Hill is author of several Weight Watchers studies and its also on the Jenny Craig scientific advisory board
“It’s always nice to have more data, and kudos to these programs that actually have the data,” he said.
Over a year, researchers found that dieters lost an average of at least 8 pounds on Weight Watchers plans and an average of 15 pounds on Jenny Craig plans. Although that may not be as much weight as most people set out to lose, Hill said it’s a meaningful amount when it comes to overall health.
“It’s not the amount of weight that people want to lose, but these programs are having an effect on people’s health and producing a weight lost that can impact health,” he said.
“It’s a really important first step to reach,” even if it doesn’t meet patients’ expectations, said study author Dr. Kimberly Gudzune, an internist and researcher at Johns Hopkins University’s medical school.
Gudzune noted in her study that 63 percent of Americans have said they attempted to lose weight once in their lives and that 29 percent of Americans are currently trying to lose weight.
The study also noted that the data could help doctors refer patients to weight loss programs that have documented success.
Increased focus on obesity in America and better access to physicians after the Affordable Care Act could also result in more conversations between patients and their doctors about weight loss, the study noted. Hill said those conversations could be helpful in arming doctors with the right information that could lead to better outcomes.
“What’s missing is doctors didn’t always have great advice for (weight loss patients),” he said. “Now you have some data.”
The study noted that very little data from any weight loss program was available. Of the 32 programs identified in the study, only 11 had clinical trial data and only a minority of that data was 12 months or longer.
The report was critical of self-directed weight loss programs, such as Atkins and SlimFast, and Internet-based programs such as The Biggest Loser Club, eDiets and LoseIt! posted minimal to no weight loss in most people.
“People aren’t succeeding doing that. These apps — while very appealing — aren’t very effective,” Hill said.
The study noted that weight-loss programs combined with behavior modification would likely have the best outcome for people trying to lose weight. Highly structured programs with one-on-one counseling sessions to reinforce behavior and make better real-world choices would likely result in better outcomes for people trying to lose weight.
Former state House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, who successfully lost weight using an Internet-based program, said motivation and support were crucial to his long-term success.
“I loved it. But also did it with my husband. So we both kept each other honest and on track,” he said. “I don’t think it works as well doing it alone. We needed the accountability to make sure we got it done. I think the key was knowledge of what you put in your body gives you the power to change. But I do think it is important to have a support network to help you change and support you.”
Also helping obese patients set better weight-loss goals and understand the impacts of incremental weight loss could help in the long term, researchers wrote. Obese patients believed they would need to lose at least 11 percent of their initial weight to see any health benefit, the study noted, but few patients actually realized that weight loss in any given year. Helping doctors better explain even marginal weight loss to patients could result in more people sticking to their weight goals, longer term.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.