Behavioral weight loss interventions: Do they work in primary care?

Multiple supportive connections in community settings can help people lose weight.

cropped photo showing the torso of a nutritionist sitting at a desk holding up a nutrition plan and pointing to it with a pen

Attaining and maintaining a healthy weight is a major health issue, not only in the United States but in many countries throughout the world. Governments are looking to identify the most effective services to support people to lose weight and improve overall health. A recent systematic review and meta-analysis (a larger study of studies) examined the effectiveness of weight management interventions delivered in primary care settings, and included data from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Spain.

Looking at weight loss support in primary care

Researchers evaluated 34 studies with adults who had a body mass index greater than 25 (overweight). They looked at people who received weight loss interventions within primary care settings. The interventions included instruction on weight management behaviors such as low-calorie diets, increased exercise, use of food diaries, and/or behavioral self-management approaches with support by clinic staff to set weight-related goals, solve problems, and increase self-management efficacy.

Weight loss interventions were conducted by telephone, the internet, email, or face-to-face, and included group-based and/or individual connections. The research compared these types of interventions to no weight loss treatment, minimal intervention (use of printed or electronic education about weight loss), or instructions in attention control to resist urges or behaviors, but not focusing specifically on weight loss behavior.

Programs delivered in primary care did produce meaningful weight loss

The interventions were delivered by a variety of medical professionals (nurses, dietitians, and general practitioners) and nonmedical practitioners such as health coaches. The interventions were undertaken between one session (with patients following the program unassisted for three months) and several sessions over three years, with a median of 12 months.

Results showed that the mean difference between the intervention and comparison (no specific weight loss intervention) groups at one year was a weight loss of 5.1 pounds, and at two years it was 4 pounds for those that received weight loss interventions in primary care. There was also a mean difference in waist circumference of -2.5 cm, in favor of the intervention at one year.

Importantly, since this was a systematic review of 34 trials with a wide range of interventions, the authors were not able to specifically identify which interventions produced the result.

Even small weight loss impacts health

The authors noted that although a 5-pound greater weight loss in the intervention group may seem small, research has shown that a 2% to 5% weight loss is associated with health benefits, including lower systolic blood pressure along with reduced triglyceride and glucose levels, which may impact cardiac health.

Do personal check-ins and support impact weight loss?

The study recognized that the comparison groups had fewer person-to-person contacts than the intervention groups, and this may have played a critical role in the findings. A greater number of contacts between patients and providers led to more weight loss. The research suggests that programs should be developed to include at least 12 contacts (face-to-face, telephone, or a combination).

Although the study did not determine the costs of the programs, it is likely that interventions delivered by nonmedical personnel, with supervision and support from primary care health professionals, would be less expensive. It may be that a combination of practitioners would be most effective, since physicians and general practitioners most likely will not have the time for 12 consultations to support a weight management program.

Prior research supports community-based behavioral interventions for weight loss

A study prepared for the US Preventive Services Task Force and published in 2018 found similar results. This review reported a reduction of 5.3 pounds in participants who received weight management interventions in a variety of settings, including universities, primary care, and the community. Compared with controls, participants in behavior-based interventions had greater mean weight loss at 12 to 18 months and less weight regain.

In the two largest trials (of the 124 identified), there was a decreased probability of developing type 2 diabetes compared with those who did not receive the weight management interventions. There was an absolute risk reduction of approximately 14.5% in both trials over three to nine years, meaning those who received weight loss management intervention had a 14.5% reduced chance of developing diabetes compared to a control group.

What’s the takeaway?

Weight management interventions delivered in primary care settings are an effective way to deliver services. Primary care practices offer good reach into the community, and oftentimes are the first point of contact for people to the healthcare system. With our growing obesity epidemic, every effort should be considered to connect with patients struggling with their weight and offer viable, effective interventions.

What can you do?

  • Ask your PCP if their practice or clinic offers programs to support weight management.
  • Contact your health insurance and inquire about programs they have in their system to help reduce risk factors and manage weight. Ask if they are free or discounted as part of your plan.
  • Check in your area if there are any community-based programs such as the YMCA, a school-based program, or a senior center focused on wellness and weight management.