Slimming clubs are being recruited by the NHS to provide thousands of overweight people with free fat-busting classes in an effort to avert Britain's obesity crisis. For the first time, doctors are to hand out vouchers to patients for WeightWatchers and Slimming World so they learn how to cut down on calories by ditching junk food and taking more exercise.
Health authorities believe "slimming on referral", which will include weekly weighing sessions, will help thousands of people lose weight and have drawn up targets of reducing patient flab by at least 5 per cent over the next two years.
This is the latest attempt by officials to tackle the country's weight problem. Figures published last month revealed that more than 14 million people in the UK will be dangerously overweight by 2010. The estimated annual cost to the nation is now more than £7bn in the form of lost working days and the treatment of health problems related to obesity. The impact on health services is massive: the cost for an individual hospital trust can be more than £3m a year.
There is a growing recognition by NHS officials that weight-loss programmes, which are based on changing people's attitudes to diet and lifestyle, are cheaper and more effective than some medical alternatives such as slimming drugs.
A 12-week "slimming on referral course" costs £37.50, for example, compared with £120 for slimming drugs for the same length of time. They also provide an alternative to costly weight-loss operations such as stomach stapling.
Kevin Barron MP, chair of the health select committee, said there was no reason for health trusts not to use slimming clubs as long as they were proven to be effective. "This is no different to smoking-cessation and there is a huge long-term saving for the NHS," said the Labour MP.
However, critics of slimming clubs say that they can be costly in the long term and that a large part of their success depends on the willpower of individuals.
Trials carried out of these slimming pilots showed that just under half of participants lost at least 5 per cent of their body weight over the first 12 weeks.
FIT CLUB: 'I was a size 24. Now I'm a 14'
Kirsty Lovell, from Suffolk, had struggled with her weight all her life. It was not until her father had a stroke two years ago that she realised she had to change. "I went to the doctor, hoping she would give me medication to make me lose weight quickly," she said. "She suggested I go to a slimming class; I was so disappointed. I wanted slimming drugs, a quick fix."
But soon after, Ms Lovell was asked if she would like to take part in a 12-week slimming programme, free of charge. "At the time, I wouldn't have been able to find the money to attend the classes." She lost 40lbs (18kgs) in 12 weeks with Slimming World.
"I was a size 24. Now I'm a 14. I exercise regularly, eat well and the health problems I had with asthma and allergies have improved."
Claire O'BoyleReuse content