This morning I read about a study out in the Lancet medical journal that compared weight loss (over a 12 month period) on a standard weight-loss program (provided by a family doctor/primary health care provider) to weight loss with Weight Watchers. My first thought was “oh, so people lose more with Weight Watchers? Well fine, but the real question is was their weight loss maintained?”. I assumed this would be answered at some point in the article. I read on, learning about the “obesity crisis” and how bad it is worldwide, and how this study shows that Weight Watchers is a “robust intervention” that can be generalized across other developing countries, and so on. And nowhere did it mention what happened with these people’s weight after the 12 months. Nor did the original study seem to look at that either. I remembered reading somewhere people get pretty darn excited about weight loss studies, but that there is really very little to suggest (based on research) that initial loss is maintained, and that looking at participants after a longer period of time has elapsed (say, 5 years) dramatically reduces the apparent success of weight loss programs. I can’t remember where I read this- maybe it was something by Leslie Kinzel or Kate Harding- but the person who wrote that also added that no wonder so many studies of weight loss interventions just don’t track participants after 6 months or a year or two: after all, that weight loss in the initial period is genuine, and they’re looking at loss not maintenance, right?
But I think it’s pretty damn disingenuous to have a huge spiel about how this new research suggests that Weight Watchers could be the solution to the “obesity crisis” (and therefore the associated diabetes, heart disease, cancer, whatever “epidemics”) but to not even be able to show that the program manages to make obese people permanently not-obese. Surely if the program is unsuccessful at helping people maintain their weight loss, it wont be these awesome tool with which to end obesity, because people will just end up putting the weight back on again. So a good study -one that wants to make the sweeping statements made by this one- would actually look at follow-up weight after the initial 12 month program trial. And why wouldn’t you want to do that if your program is so great and successful and actually works- it would only make you look good. But, as the blogger who I have forgotten (sorry!) would say cynically, there’s probably a reason that studies of weight-loss programs (especially ones funded by the company who runs the program, as this study was) don’t do long-term follow up on the participants.