What if people could enhance the popular Weight Watchers program by jump-starting it with a few months of professionally led behavioral weight-loss sessions? In theory, concentrating on learning to change your eating and physical activity behaviors before jumping into a weight-loss effort should help you shed extra pounds.

(Trent Penny/AP)

But in a study published Tuesday morning in the journal Obesity, things didn’t work out quite that way.

Researchers at Baruch College at the City University of New York, led by assistant professor of psychology Angela Pinto, were aware that hospital-based behavioral weight-loss programs in which people attend weekly sessions led by a trained professional can be quite successful. From the study’s introduction:

“Professionally delivered, group-based, face-to-face behavioral weight loss treatment (BWL) is considered the state-of-the-art approach for non-medical treatment of moderate overweight and obesity. The most effective programs, typically delivered in academic medical centers in the context of research trials, achieve clinically significant weight losses of 10 percent of starting weight by teaching diet and exercise modification and emphasizing behavioral skills such as self-monitoring, stimulus control, and goal-setting.  However, because these treatments are generally offered through research programs they have limited accessibility to the millions of Americans trying to lose weight, and thus, a relatively narrow impact on the obesity epidemic.”     

Pinto and her fellow researchers surmised that offering that structured program to people before launching them into Weight Watchers would give them a running start – and that those people would lose more weight than those who did Weight Watchers alone for the same number of weeks.

For the NIH-funded study, 141 overweight and obese people (90 percent of them female) recruited via newspaper ads were randomly assigned to one of three groups: One that did Weight Watchers for 48 weeks, another that did the behavioral weight-loss program (BWL) for that same time, and a third that started with 12 weeks of BWL before transitioning to 36 weeks of Weight Watchers. Participants were weighed at 12 weeks, 24 weeks and 48 weeks.

The results weren’t quite as expected. While people in all three groups lost weight, those who followed Weight Watchers alone for the 48 weeks lost an average of 13 pounds apiece, compared to 12 pounds for the BWL group and 8 in the combined-approach group. Beyond that, more than a third (37 percent) of the Weight Watchers group lost 10 percent or more of the weight they started with, and more than half (51 percent) lost 5 percent or more of their starting weight. In the BWL group, 11 percent lost 10 percent or more and 41 percent lost 5 percent or more of their starting weight. Among those in the combined group, 15 percent lost 10 percent or more and 33 percent lost 5 percent or more of their initial weight.

The study notes that people in the combination weight-loss group may have had trouble switching from the more structured BWL program to the more self-guided Weight Watchers regimen; that notion is supported by the fact that participation in the combined program trailed off a bit after the transition.

The authors calculated that participation in Weight Watchers – including registration weekly meetings and weigh-ins, access to a Web site offering tools and information cost just under $10 a week.

The weight losses observed in the study are considered substantial enough to make a difference in people’s health. But whenever I report on research such as this, I’m reminded how daunting a prospect losing weight can be. I’m also reminded, though, that it can be done.