Commercial weight loss plans really do help people slim down, study says

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — New research finds that if slimming down is your ultimate goal, it may be worth it to invest in a commercial weight loss program.

Dr. Lesley Lutes, director of the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Obesity and Well-Being Research Excellence, reports people looking to make meaningful, lasting lifestyle changes and lose weight tend to be more successful when they use a commercial weight loss program compared to others who try to do it all on their own.

“Given the prevalence of obesity, accessible and effective treatment options are needed to manage obesity and its comorbid conditions including heart disease and pre-diabetes,” Lutes says in a university release. “Evidence-based commercial weight management programs are a potential solution to the lack of available treatment and considerably cheaper than a clinic-based approach.”

Dr. Lutes explains that scientists have properly evaluated very few commercial programs in a medical and scientific manner. This means few if any doctors are going to recommend a for-profit program to their patients. Despite there being hundreds of commercial weight loss programs available nowadays, just six currently meet the United States Preventive Services Taskforce criteria.

Among the vast majority of commercial weight-loss programs, important elements like the quality and success rate, along with behavioral and nutritional components, are all a mystery to health care providers. Moreover, even fewer of these for-profit programs account for and integrate cognitive, affective, and behavioral factors, considered essential elements of any standard health or care plan.

Obesity care involves more than ‘eat less, move more’

According to the Canadian Medical Association clinical practice guidelines released in 2020, obesity care should be based only on evidence-based principles of chronic disease management, all while validating patients lived experiences.

“Essentially, obesity care needs to move beyond the simplistic approaches of ‘eat less, move more,’” Dr. Lutes notes. “To be successful it must address the root drivers of obesity.”

Dr. Lutes was a lead investigator on a year-long study encompassing the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada. The study randomly assigned over 370 participants into two groups. Half joined a commercial weight management program, while the other half were part of a do-it-yourself (DIY) group.

Those assigned to the DIY cohort received common weight-loss information, such as strategies, diet tracking, self-monitoring apps, meal plans, and physical activity suggestions. Besides that, the team left these people alone.

Researchers encouraged participants in the commercial program to attend weekly workshops featuring a private weight assessment, discussions on successes so far, problem-solving strategies, and other topics related to weight loss and behavioral changes. These individuals also had access to an app, which offered self-monitoring of intake, activity, and weight, as well as weight loss articles, 24/7 support, and an online community.

“One of the features of the commercial program used in this study was that self-monitoring was simplified to be less burdensome,” Dr. Lutes explains. “Participants did not need to weigh, measure or track more than 200 foods, simplifying the process as much as possible.”

Going it alone doesn’t always work

The team assessed each participant on two occasions, after three months and one full year later. Those in the commercial weight management program lost more than twice as much weight and reduced their waist circumference by a larger percentage in comparison to the DIY cohort. Interestingly, members of both groups also experienced secondary benefits such as improvements in blood pressure, heart rate, aerobic stamina, flexibility, and sleep.

In summation, Dr. Lutes believes there are two main takeaways from this work. First, it’s clear that participants using a globally available commercial weight management program displayed greater weight loss success at the three-month mark. Additionally, these individuals felt more supported throughout their weight loss journey and were better able to maintain and continue that weight loss over the full 12-month period. People in the DIY group didn’t have the same level of success.

This research may also prove useful for care providers and policymakers looking to address obesity as a public health concern.

“This information can help me advocate the government about one of the many ways they can support patients in our province to improve health and wellbeing,” the study author concludes. “Perhaps our leaders can think about subsidizing access to commercial weight-loss programs that are proven effective. It could be a major step in helping achieve desperately needed improved health outcomes.”

The study is published in JAMA Network Open.

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