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Double MRC study proves diet clubs can help in the fight against obesity

12 Jul 2010

Two new studies from the Medical Research Council (MRC) have shown that people who are referred to commercial weight loss programmes do better than those on standard NHS weight management programmes.

The first study used existing data on 29,326 people (90% women) aged 38-61 years who had been referred to a commercial weight loss programme via the NHS. The patients were referred by health professionals to receive vouchers for 12 Weight Watchers meetings paid for by their Primary Care Trust. This was one of the largest audits of a commercial weight loss programme and looked at data over a 2.5 year period. The aim was to determine whether commercial weight loss programmes could be an effective tool in helping fight obesity, and success was measured in terms of the number of patients who completed the course and real weight loss they achieved.

The study found that almost 60 percent of referral courses completed. Of these, more than half resulted in a loss of over 5% of initial body weight – a clinically significant amount that will deliver health benefits for people who are obese.

The second study, a large-scale randomised trial, set out to compare the effectiveness of a 12 month referral to a commercial weight loss programme with 12 months of standard care provided by GPs. The study took place in three countries; UK, Australia and Germany and followed 772 people (87% female) with an average age of 47 years.

Over the year, GPs allocated half of their overweight patients to attend weekly Weight Watchers meetings. These patients were given free Weight Watchers vouchers to do so. The other half received GP-led care which involved providing leaflets about healthy eating and scheduled appointments with a nurse for weigh-ins and advice. The patients had their weight recorded at regular intervals throughout the year.

Over a third (36%) of patients referred to the Weight Watchers scheme lost 5% or more of their original body weight. Only 16% of patients on standard care achieved this level of weight loss.

Speaking at this week’s International Congress on Obesity (ICO), Dr Susan Jebb, Head of Nutrition and Health Research at the MRC Human Nutrition Research Unit said:

“Losing four to five kilograms can halve a person's diabetes risk if they are overweight, so even a little can be beneficial. The challenge is how you do it.

“Weight Watchers is by no means unique. Any similar programme involving regular weight checks, goal-setting and peer support might achieve the same results. Our studies didn’t compare different commercial weight loss programmes but did test the general concept of whether the various schemes available might work better than the current standard care. Regardless of which commercial programme people opt for, it's having a weekly weigh-in and support that seems to work – people are more likely to stick at it.

“It is crucial that healthcare policy is supported by robust science. It’s trials like this that will provide evidence to help find the solutions for tackling the growing obesity epidemic.”

Last year, the MRC highlighted the pressing need to develop effective strategies which will change lifestyles at an individual level. This requires the evaluation of programmes that encourage behaviour beneficial to health and discourage unhealthy choices.

The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidance on obesity (2006) highlighted gaps in research on the effectiveness of commercial weight loss programmes. It suggested partnerships between primary care organisations and commercial weight loss programmes could be beneficial and both research studies were specifically designed to examine this issue and measure real-life weight loss. The study was funded by Weight Watchers, however the research was completely independent and conducted on the agreement that the scientific results would be presented and published without interference from Weight Watchers, whatever the outcome.

The World Health Organisation predicts 2.3 billion people will be overweight in 2015 and more than 700 million obese. In Europe, obesity accounts for up to 7% of healthcare costs.


  • Categories:
  • Health categories: Cardiovascular, Metabolic, Oral and Gastro
  • Locations: Cambridge
  • Type: Success story