People who met regularly with a personal health coach over two years saw impressive weight loss, a study by Pennington Biomedical Research Center found.

The researchers say that's evidence that tailored weight-loss help should be covered by insurance and Medicare.  

The study volunteers had weekly in-person or phone sessions with a health coach for six months. They then had monthly sessions for the next 18 months — always with the same health professional.

On average, they lost 5 percent of their body weight. That's compared to a 0.5 percent of body weight loss for the volunteers in the group who got "usual care" -- routine primary care visits and six newsletters over two years with general health-related articles.

"Primary care is still a cornerstone of medical care in the U.S., yet it's not utilized for weight loss," said Peter Katzmarzyk, Associate Executive Director of Population and Public Health Sciences at Pennington. "Doctors often don't have the time to do the counseling or they may not be trained in it."

Katzmarzyk said he hopes the results of the study "will change how obesity treatment is funded and pave a way forward so that patients can get coverage on this type of intervention through their insurance and Medicare." 

The results of Pennington's Promoting Successful Weight Loss in Primary Care in Louisiana (PROPEL) study were published earlier this month in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The research was funded over five years by a $10 million grant from the Washington, D.C.-based Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute.

A total of 803 people volunteered for the study at the health clinics where they already saw their primary doctors. The 18 clinics were located in urban and rural areas throughout the state, Katzmarzyk said, and the health coaches — who came from a variety of fields, including nutrition, kinesiology and behavioral psychology — were hired from the local communities.

"We brought this to them," he said of the study participants.

Most of the participants were low-income, a population that often faces high levels of obesity and barriers to weight loss, Pennington said in a recent statement about the research.

More than half of the participants received the weight-loss interventions with their health coaches.

"It was a very individualized, patient-centered approach," Katzmarzyk said. 

The other 351 participants followed their usual, routine doctor visits and also received newsletters about healthy lifestyles. 

Gary Dampier of Belle Chase said that, when his general practitioner asked him if he'd be interested in taking part in the study a few years ago, he said, "Sure!"

Dampier said losing weight has been a longtime goal of his. He's got a large build -- he's 6 feet tall with a 48-inch chest -- and his body mass index (BMI) numbers always label him as obese, even though he tries to stay physically fit with regular workouts, he said. 

"Nobody thinks I weigh as much as I do," said Dampier, an officer manager and accountant with an electrical contractor.

Dampier said he wasn't aiming for a number on the scale during the study, but a certain pants size -- and he's very close to reaching it.  

He said his health coach helped him get a handle on the diabetes he was diagnosed with five years ago.

"She taught me a lot of things I didn't know -- about carbs, counting the number of calories for each meal," Dampier said.

He said he's learned what to look for at the grocery store, reading labels for information on calories and carbs. 

"If I was having a problem, she'd help me work through it," Dampier said.

For example, Dampier told his coach he had a problem with popcorn. Her answer? 

"Reduce your calories during the day if you know you're going to the movies that night and having the popcorn," Dampier said. 

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