How social support can help you lose weight

Psychological research has found that a group approach helps, at least in the short-term.

It’s easier to stick with a weight loss plan when you have support, can share tips on diet and exercise and have an exercise buddy, say researchers. Here are a few ways to find support:

  • Informal commercial programs. Commercial programs that rely on group support, discussions about exercise and diet and assignments, such as keeping a food diary, can be a good choice.

    In one study, researchers looked at the effectiveness of Weight Watchers versus a self-help approach consisting of two brief sessions with a dietician plus printed materials.

    The researchers found that the Weight Watchers participants lost more than three times the pounds of the self-help group the first year. On average, the Weight Watchers group lost almost 10 pounds compared to three pounds in the self-help group.

    By the end of the second year, both groups had regained weight. But while the self-help group returned to their starting weight, the average Weight Watchers participant kept off more than six pounds.

  • Clinic-based groups. Another option is small weight-loss groups based at universities or medical centers. Run by psychologists, nutritionists or other weight-loss professionals, these programs last for a set number of weeks.

    Thanks to the individualized attention they provide, these groups may lead to greater weight loss than commercial programs, say some researchers. As yet, there have been no comparative studies to prove that claim.

  • Trevose Behavior Modification Program. Launched in 1970 by a formerly obese person and an obesity researcher, this rigorous program requires enrollees to attend weekly group sessions. They're also required to meet predetermined weight-loss goals or risk being kicked out. Run entirely by volunteers, the program is free.

    That hard-core approach seems to work. In one study, participants lost an average of 19 percent of their body weight in two years—much more than typical.

    And the study participants managed to keep that weight off. After five years, they were on average still down 17 percent from their initial weight.  

    However, the hard-core approach also proves too much for many participants. In the study, just under half of the enrollees were still participating in the program at the two-year mark.

  • Social support. Researchers are still wrestling with how to help people keep weight off after group treatment ends. Enlisting family and friends in the effort may help, research suggests.

    According to one study, participants who enrolled in a weight-loss program with friends did a better job of keeping their weight off. In addition to teaming up with friends, these enrollees were given social support in addition to standard treatment.

    Two-thirds of those who enrolled with friends had kept their weight off six months after the meetings ended. In contrast, only a quarter of those who attended on their own had achieved that same success.