The Battle of the Bulge

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

We all know the basic medical facts: we should make healthy choices about what we eat and incorporate exercise into our busy lives. Most of the science of weight loss matches common sense. But it’s also true that more and more Americans are overweight or obese. As a nation, we are losing the battle of the bulge. How then can we motivate ourselves to address our ever-growing weight problem?

Recently published results from a study funded by Weight Watchers grabbed some headlines and offer some ideas. The fact the work was backed by Weight Watchers should be borne in mind as we consider the results of the study, but the funding source alone doesn’t mean the results are off base. According to The Los Angeles Times, the work was partially done by researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine, giving the study some independent authority.

The study took 292 people and enrolled half of them in Weight Watchers, the nation’s largest weight loss group that’s mostly built around face-to-face meetings. At the meetings, people (privately) weigh themselves and record their progress. Veterans of weight loss facilitate discussions about different topics relating to diet and exercise. People in the program record what they eat each day, either using pencil and paper or on-line.

The other half of the study’s 292 people were given a package of materials with advice for safe weight loss and sent on their way, alone. Essentially, they had a lot of the same information as the Weight Watchers group, but they had no formal social or emotional support system for what they were trying to accomplish.

Since they were participating in a study to try to lose weight, we can assume that all 292 participants had some basic motivation to shed pounds. But after six months, the difference between the two groups was clear: the people who had the support of the Weight Watchers system did much better than those sent home with the task of losing weight by themselves. At the end of six months, the folks in the Weight Watchers group were almost nine times more likely to have lost 10 percent of their body weight than those sent home to go it alone.

It seems that, at least for many people, group meetings can be useful in the battle of the bulge. That idea is also borne out by the fact that regular attendance at group meetings, according to the study, was the single best predictor of who would shed the most pounds.

We all face many daily temptations when it comes to what we eat. Whether you opt for a food diary and counting calories, a special diet like the low-carb regimen, group meetings such as those offered by Weight Watchers, or something else, what matters is that you find the path that works for you. Talk to your doctor and get started. Weight loss isn’t easy, as I know first hand. But if your health is being affected by carrying too many pounds, it has simply got to be done.

I’m pulling for you.

 Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.