Janice Stanger, PhD

Janice Stanger, PhD

Posted September 11, 2011

Published in Health

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Why the Much-Hyped Weight Watchers Study Sets You Up for Disappointment

Read More: weight loss, Weight Watchers, whole foods plant-based diet

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Is the Glass 6 Pounds Full or 42 Pounds Empty?

The media have been overflowing with a recent British study that compared weight loss results of visits to a doctor vs. the Weight Watchers program. A Google search for the common headline “Weight Watchers Doubles Weight Loss” got me 2.7 million results.

This research, published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, is based on a year-long study of 772 overweight and obese adults in the UK, Germany, and Australia. About half were randomly assigned to see their doctor regularly to Thumbnail image for doctor with apple_small.jpghelp them lose weight (called “standard care”), while the other half attended Weight Watchers meetings for free.

The laudatory reporting makes it sound like Weight Watchers has a path to health and a trim body. A review of the actual data, as opposed to the overblown stories, shows just the opposite. The study results indicate this commercial program will disappoint in term of both health and weight. These common programs will keep you from the true weight loss secret: a whole foods, plant-based diet.

Here’s what the routine media won’t tell you. Before the study started, the average participant in The Lancet research was about 5 feet 5 inches tall, weighed 191 pounds, and had an obese BMI of 31.5 for the Weight Watchers group. BMI (Body Mass Index) is a measure of the relationship of your weight to your height, and is commonly used to determine if you are normal weight, overweight, or obese.

Over the course of the year-long study, the participants who received standard care from a doctor lost, on average, about 5 pounds. This does not include the people who dropped out of the study. These people probably lost even less, as unsuccessful results will discourage participants from continuing.

The participants who went to Weight Watchers over the year of the study, with the time spent on meetings, counseling, portioning out food, counting points, setting goals, and all the other program activities lost, on average, 11 pounds. Again, this does not include the results of the drop-outs. In other words, Weight Watchers was good, on average, for an additional 6 pounds of lost weight (compared to just going to a doctor) over the course of an entire year!

To get to a BMI of 23, a truly healthy weight as supported by numerous research studies, the participants needed to drop to 138 pounds. In other words, they had to lose 53 pounds, not the 11 they actually experienced. So maybe a year was not enough to lose that much weight? Actually at a safe pound a week, you can easily lose 53 pounds in a year. This study’s published data show that, for the Weight Watchers group, weight loss leveled off after 9 months. The data did not indicate any further weight reduction was happening or that the participants would lose more than 11 pounds over time.

So here’s the data summary for the average Weight Watchers’ participant:

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