Nanny state bribes may be more efective than diets

Paying people to lose weight works better than diet plans, research suggests. 
A scheme being trialled by the NHS that rewards slimmers with cash or shopping vouchers could be more than twice as effective, it is claimed.

Those who sign up to the programme, from a company known as Weight Wins, are paid if they lose a certain amount of weight and then keep it off for a period of three months or more, with payments increasing the more weight someone can shed.

Slimmers on a 13 month “Pounds for Pounds” plan can be paid up to £425 for losing 50lb (23kg), while a six month reduction of 30lb would accrue £160.

Weight Wins, the company running the scheme, is extending it to offer a maximum of £1,000 for a loss of 150lb, to be achieved and maintained over two years. Preliminary results for 600 obese people found they lost an average of 14.4lb in six months. One in four of those who were still attending regular weigh-ins to get paid after 12 months lost an average of 29lb, equivalent to a 13 per cent reduction. The typical diet programme leads to a loss of only around 5 per cent, the company’s founders say.

But the results are not from a controlled trial, and the scheme is not without its critics, including the Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe. 

Ms Widdecombe, who lost 35lb on ITV’s Celebrity Fit Club show in 2002, said: “If the NHS had money to spare it would be okay, but the fact is the NHS is short of money. There are plenty of people who cannot get funding to pay for treatment for illnesses,” she said. “We can all control our own weight. If the NHS has to prioritise, then this should be at the end of its priorities.”

Winton Rossiter, managing director of Weight Wins, said that offering money as an incentive could be cost-effective for the NHS, which spends more than £4 billion annually on treating obesity and related illnesses. The findings, verified by the University of Hertfordshire, were presented this week at the National Obesity Forum, a charity set up by medical practitioners.

The Weight Wins programme is being tested by the NHS in Eastern and Coastal Kent, as part of a national trial. The full results are expected early next year. There are already similar pay-to-quit schemes to encourage people to stop smoking, while GPs can already refer seriously overweight people to dieticians or exercise classes that are subsidised by the NHS.

Weight Wins says that its cash rewards programme could save the NHS £1.7 billion in lifetime medical expenses for every million people taking part. A total of 31 million adults in Britain are now thought to be overweight or obese.

People can pay upwards of £45 to enrol in the scheme privately, with the chance of more than doubling their money, Mr Rossiter said. “We believe we could have a breakthrough solution to resolving the obesity epidemic. Most people know how to lose weight, through controlled dieting and exercise, but they fail to maintain their plans because of a lack of motivation. Financial incentives work because they reward you for losing weight steadily and safely month by month, and then you have a bonus for keeping it off.”

The National Obesity Forum said: “We would only support this if there was a proper randomised controlled trial that proved that weight was being kept off.”

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