Doctors often advise people who are overweight to lose weight by improving their dietary habits or becoming more physically active. However, the results of a new study suggest that such generic advice does not empower people to succeed in their weight loss efforts.

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Doctors should give patients specific weight loss advice and demonstrate empathy, say researchers.

According to data that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cite, over 71 percent of adults over the age of 20 years in the United States are overweight or have obesity.

Being overweight can increase a person's risk of developing metabolic conditions, such as diabetes, and experiencing cardiovascular problems.

For this reason, doctors advise people who are overweight to improve their health outcomes by adopting a more healthful lifestyle.

However, recent research by investigators from Duke University in Durham, NC has found that offering generic advice, such as "follow a better diet" or "exercise more," does not help people lose weight.

"Just telling somebody to lose weight or improve their diet or physical activity didn't work," notes study co-author Prof. Gary Bennett.

"The doctor should instead encourage patient participation in a specific program," he recommends.

Prof. Bennett and colleagues report their current findings in a study paper that appears in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Specificity is important, as is empathy

The researchers recruited 134 participants who were all overweight and had a mean age of 51 years. Of these participants, 70 percent were women, and 55 percent were African-American. Many of them had health problems, including diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure).

The study lasted for 1 year, during which participants took part in a weight loss program that set behavioral goals according to their individual needs. As part of the program, the participants received educational materials, calls from program coaches, individual progress reports, and text messages containing tips for weight loss.

At the same time, the participants had to check in on a regular basis with doctors and nurses, some of whom only gave them generic advice, while others gave them specific advice and encouragement that reinforced the need for full participation in the weight loss program.

At the 6- and 12-month marks of the intervention, the researchers assessed the participants' weight. They also asked them what kind of advice their healthcare providers had offered them and how they perceived these specialists' levels of care and empathy.

The research team found that the participants who received specific tips and information from their healthcare providers lost an average of almost 7 pounds (lbs) more than their peers who only received generic advice from doctors and nurses.

Moreover, the investigators observed that the level of empathy that doctors displayed also made a significant difference. Thus, participants who perceived their doctors as being empathetic also shed approximately 7 lbs more, on average, than those whose healthcare providers showed little empathy.

Following these findings, the study authors recommend that healthcare providers be more aware of the importance of their interaction with patients. However, the researchers also encourage individuals who are seeking medical advice regarding weight loss to ask doctors and nurses for specific guidance.

"Patients who enroll in a weight loss program should consider asking their healthcare providers to check in on their progress. This can help keep them accountable."

Study co-author Megan McVay

"It is also important to have a provider that they feel cares about them and has sympathy toward how hard it is to lose weight," McVay stresses.