WASHINGTON The personal touch really counts when it comes to keeping off weight.
U.S. researchers found that people who had lost weight were more apt to keep it off if they had periodic personal chats with a counselor rather than regularly reading a Web site that provides advice or getting no regular continuing assistance.
The benefit was not huge but the little bit of extra weight that they kept off compared to others in the study could give them significant health advantages, the researchers said.
Obesity is a major problem in the United States and many other nations, representing an expanding public health threat. Obese people are at higher risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers and other ailments.
Many people are able to lose weight but often struggle to keep the weight off and frequently regain it all -- and more.
"We have pretty good information about how to help people lose weight in a healthy way but we know very little about how to help people maintain that weight loss," Dr. Laura Svetkey of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, who led the study, said in a telephone interview.
The researchers called the study, published on Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the largest and longest assessment of weight-loss maintenance strategies.
It involved 1,032 overweight or obese middle-aged people at four sites across the United States who had lost an average of 18.7 pounds (8.5 kg) during a six-month weight loss program.
They were randomly assigned to one of three groups and then followed for 2 1/2 more years.
The first group had monthly personal talks on diet and physical activity with trained weight-loss counselors. The talks usually were by telephone but every four months people in the group had hour-long face-to-face meetings with counselors.
The second group was given access to an interactive Web site with information and tools to track weight, keep food diaries and monitor exercise levels. People in the third group largely were on their own.
By the study's end, most had regained some weight.
But the group who had personal contact with counselors regained the least amount of weight -- an average of 8.8 pounds (4 kg). The group using the Web site regained 11.5 pounds (5.2 kg), doing little better than the people who were on their own, who regained 12.1 pounds (5.5 kg).
"The Internet site, we tried to make as interactive and responsive as we possibly could do," Svetkey said. "But there's no question that an actual human being can be more responsive and interactive than the Internet could ever be."
Dr. Lawrence Appel of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore said 70 percent of the people who took part weighed less at the end of the study than at the start.
Appel said the scale of the obesity problem may make personal weight-loss maintenance counseling difficult.
"When you have an epidemic where 30 percent of people (in the United States) are obese and another third, roughly, are overweight, you're dealing with something for which there are not enough dietitians in the world to deal with this on a person one-on-one basis," Appel said.
(Editing by Maggie Fox and Bill Trott)