A new research study supports the longstanding view that social support can play a big role in successful weight loss—but only under the right conditions.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, nearly 80 percent of African-American women and more than 70 percent of African-American men are overweight or obese—the highest rates for any group in the U.S. And significant numbers of African-Americans suffer from obesity-associated diabetes and heart disease. Unfortunately, however, African-Americans have typically not responded as well as other populations to some of the more common behavioral approaches to treating obesity.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, led by Shiriki K. Kumanyika, Ph.D., M.P.H., set out to study whether being joined by their friends or family members in a weight loss program would make a significant difference for African-American adults seeking to lose weight.
The Pennsylvania project was named SHARE, for Supporting Healthy Activity and eating Right Everyday. The same goal was the set for all participants—a five to ten percent weight loss over 24 months, with progress milestones every six months. Counseling about diet and exercise, free pedometers, group activities, and community-based outings to cooking demos and local exercise centers were provided as part of the program.
SHARE enrolled a total of 344 African-American men and women, including 193 primary weight-loss subjects and 151 associated friends and family. Ninety percent of the participants were women.
The participants were divided into three groups.
• 63 solo participants
• 65 primary subjects with family/partners who were assigned to a “high support” group.
• 65 primary subjects with family/partners who were assigned to a “low support” group
In the high support group both the primary subjects and their partners were encouraged to participate fully in all aspects of the treatment program. In the low support groups, some aspects of treatment were provided only to the primary subjects without their partners.
At the end of the 2-year program, the primary subjects had lost about 5.3 pounds each on average. At the start, the partner pairs had a higher participation rate and lost more weight, but over time the difference decreased.
The largest positive outcome for the partner approach was found in cases where both the primary subject and the partner succeeded in losing weight. In both high support and low support pairings, the more weight their partner lost, the more weight the primary subject lost.
According to the SHARE report “Trial of Family and Friend Support for Weight Loss in African American Adults,” published in the Archives of Internal Medicine on October 26, 2009, “Beneficial effects on weight loss were linked to actual rather than assigned partner participation and to partner success in losing weight.”
The authors hope that further studies will succeed in identifying other adaptations that will make weight-loss programs more effective for different communities and cultural groups, and also additional ways to improve weight-loss programs through the involvement of groups of friends and family for mutual support.
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