BACKGROUND: Developed countries are facing a huge rise in the prevalence of obesity and its associated chronic medical problems. In the UK Primary Care Trusts are charged with addressing this in the populations they serve, but evidence about the most effective ways of delivering services is not available. The aim of this study is to determine the effectiveness of a range of weight loss programmes for obese patients in primary care and to determine the characteristics of patients who respond to an invitation to a free weight management programme. METHODS/DESIGN: Lighten Up is a randomised controlled trial comparing a range of 12-week commercial and NHS weight reduction programmes with a comparator group who are provided with 12 vouchers enabling free entrance to a local leisure centre. The weight reduction programmes are: (i) Weight Watchers, (ii) Slimming World, (iii) Rosemary Conley, (iv) a group-based dietetics-led programme (Size Down), (v) general practice one-to-one counselling, (vi) pharmacy-led one-to-one counselling, (vii) choice of any of the 6 programmes. People with obesity or overweight with a co-morbid disorder are invited to take part by a letter from their general practitioner. The sample size is 740 participants.The primary outcome is weight loss at programme-end (3 months). Secondary outcomes are weight-loss at one year, self-reported physical activity at 3 and 12 months follow-up and percentage weight-loss at 3 months and one year. DISCUSSION: This trial will provide evidence about the effectiveness of a range of different weight management programmes in a primary care population. TRIAL REGISTRATION: Current Controlled Trials ISRCTN25072883.