In helping overweight and obese men and women achieve weight loss, can low-cost peer mentoring work as well as or better than more expensive treatment delivered by health professionals?
Yes, according to the results of a clinical trial led by Dr. Angela Marinilli Pinto, assistant professor at Baruch College, and funded by the National Institutes of Health.
Dr. Pinto recently completed a 12-month randomized clinical trial of 141 overweight and obese men and women to determine the most effective treatment to achieve weight loss. Individuals were randomly assigned to one of three group programs:
- Behavioral weight-loss treatment delivered by a health professional
- Weight Watchers, where groups are led by Weight Watcher members who have achieved and maintained a healthy weight
- A combination of three months of behavioral weight loss treatment delivered by a health professional followed by nine months of Weight Watchers
While all three groups lost weight, the Weight Watchers approach produced greater weight loss, on average, than the combination approach (weight loss in the professionally led program was not significantly different from either group). In fact, among Weight Watchers participants, 37 percent lost 10 percent or more of their starting weight, compared with 15 percent in the combined group and 11 percent in the professionally led group.
David Kirchhoff, president and CEO of Weight Watchers, states, "In our experience, the biggest challenge with any behavior change program is to keep people engaged long enough for new habits to take hold. Weight Watchers expertise, along with our research and development efforts, is aimed to keep our members interested, motivated and engaged. To that end, we use a combination of tools—group support, website content, mobile apps, and so on. These elements, combined with a consumer-friendly, science-based program, are the ingredients of our secret sauce."
While Weight Watchers meetings provide valuable information to attendees on food, exercise and behavior, the defining contribution for many members is the supportive atmosphere provided by the peer counselors.
This counseling, however, is not the kind one expects from a therapist or clinician—indeed, this counseling operates outside the medical model. For example, members exchange valuable weight-loss tips and coping skills, and Weight Watchers leaders serve as role models and sources of inspiration. Leaders also share their experiential knowledge.
Ultimately, the goal of the Weight Watchers approach (which costs about $10 a week) is to support members in achieving their weight-loss goals as they make needed changes—whether those changes involve adopting healthier eating habits, implementing a regular exercise routine, learning constructive coping behavior or developing a more positive relationship with oneself.
The results of Dr. Pinto's research clearly validate the Weight Watchers approach and are consistent with programs used by organizers of community weight-loss events.
One of the first community weight-loss events, the Nevada County Meltdown, was held in a small Northern California community six years ago. Over a thousand residents organized into 200+ teams. Stakeholders in the community—medical professionals, educators, fitness centers, restaurants, grocery stores, service groups, youth clubs and so on—promoted and participated in the campaign.
At the end of eight weeks, participants had lost nearly four tons of fat. (Not coincidentally, local group leaders from Weight Watchers played a major role in the event by participating in weekly meetings, donating prizes and providing peer counseling.)
Since then, hundreds of communities across the United States—and even communities as far away as Australia—have successfully adopted a grassroots, peer-based approach to weight loss.
As Dr. Pinto's research on the Weight Watchers model and the practical experience of the community-based model demonstrate, peer mentoring is strongly linked to successful weight loss. In fact, Dr. Pinto found that "better meeting attendance [at Weight Watchers meetings] is associated with better weight losses" and that "people who continued to attend treatment did better."
As the number of overweight and obese individuals in the United States approaches 70 percent (about 215 million people), the urgency of finding effective low-cost weight-loss options increases. And this research confirms that we can get leaner by leaning on each other.