Research has found that people who attend weekly WeightWatchers sessions, paid for by the health service, lose an average of 15lb in a year – twice as much as those who simply receive weight-loss advice from their GP.
The study, by the Medical Research Council, also found that 12 percent of patients managed to lose at least 10 percent of their body weight over three months.
The scientists say the sessions teach people good habits which enable them to stay slim for life.
Around two-thirds of Primary Care Trusts in England and Wales pay for patients to attend WeightWatchers courses. But most GPs will restrict them to those who are dangerously obese – often referring only a handful each year.
Most are initially placed on a three-month course, costing [pounds sterling]45, but this can be extended to a year or more.
But researchers say the courses have proved so successful that overweight patients should be referred as a matter of course.
Britain is in the grip of an obesity epidemic with 1 in 4 adults classed as too heavy. Experts warn that more than half the adult population will be obese by 2050 unless they alter their diets and take more exercise.
Dr. Susan Jebb, head of nutrition and health at the Medical Research Council’s center in Cambridge, has carried out two studies of people sent on courses paid for by health services in the UK, Germany, and Australia.
She found that those who attended the courses over a year shed 15lbs (7kg), twice the amount of patients advised by their family doctors, who lost an average of 8lbs (3.9 kg).
The second study looked at 30,000 patients who had attended NHS-funded courses. It found that in three months 12 percent managed to shift a tenth of their body weight and 58 percent lost at least 5 percent of their body weight.
Although the study was funded by WeightWatchers, the researchers insist it is ‘totally impartial’.
It is, they say, no different from a drug giant paying for a medical trial.
Dr. Jebb said: ‘It incredibly encourages potential. ing. It tells us this is an effective way of getting people to lose weight.’
But she admitted the humiliation of the weigh-in often deters patients, particularly men. More than 90 percent of participants are women.
The weekly sessions are typically held in a local sports club or community center and chaired by a leader who has shed pounds on the scheme.
They begin with the infamous ‘weigh-in’, whereby participants step on to the scales in a private corner of the room to discover if their efforts have been successful.
Participants then learn about healthy eating including the points-based system which scores food according to calorie content.
Every year around 30,000 patients are sent on Weight-Watchers courses paid for by the NHS.
They first became available on the health service six years ago, but only a handful of trusts referred people.
Zoe Helman, a Weight-Watchers dietician, said: ‘The group support of the sessions is fundamental to their success.
People feel obliged to try hard and lose the weight if they know they will be attending a meeting in a few days’ time. They feel that if they don’t try – and eat the wrong foods – they will have let the side down.
‘Research has also shown that in the long-term, people do manage to keep the weight off.