It's hard to lose weight, especially for older people who may also have health conditions like diabetes or hypertension. And yet they are the very people whose health would be most helped by weight loss. A slower metabolism, less muscle mass and reduced activity can make dropping those extra pounds even more challenging. But there is something they can do to make success more likely: Get help from a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), according to a new study.

Current estimates are that nearly 40 percent of American adults are obese which puts them at increased risk for an assortment of health issues. Obesity is associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke, certain types of cancer and cardiovascular disease. The cost of obesity is an astounding $147 billion every year or an extra $1,429 per obese person per year.

Women in the study who saw an RDN lost, on average, over 2½ pounds and cut their reliance on prescription medications.

Researchers at East Carolina University reviewed the notes from medical charts of patients in a rural medical clinic. Over 2,000 women were eligible to participate in a program where they were seen by an RDN for intensive behavioral therapy for weight loss. All of the women were on Medicare and had a body mass index (BMI) over 30.

The women met with a dietitian once a week for a month and then every other week for the next six months. If a woman lost weight, she continued to meet with the dietitian once a month for another six months to talk about challenges and lifestyle changes. RDNs gave their patients clear, specific, personalized advice, and worked with them to choose goals and come up with methods for achieving them. Each woman's progress and challenges were discussed in follow-up meetings.

Women in the study who saw an RDN lost, on average, just over 2½ pounds. Patients who were not part of the program gained about a half a pound. More importantly, the body mass index of those who saw an RDN went down, along with their average blood sugar; and they took fewer prescription medications than patients who did not see a dietitian.

The study demonstrates that RDNs can be effective team members in primary care settings to improve patient outcomes including weight, blood sugar levels and reduced use of prescription medications.

Dietitians often specialize in certain health conditions in addition to weight loss. If you are struggling with weight loss, you can ask your physician for a referral to a registered dietitian nutritionist in your area.

The study is published in Family Practice.