What to Think About When Choosing a Weight Loss Program

Here are some doctor-approved questions to ask.

-What’s your track record? How long has this program been around?

-Do you have any studies or statistics that show this really works?

-Who am I going to be talking to? Am I talking to a counselor who got an hour of training, or a registered dietitian or nurse, or just a salesperson?

-What will it cost? (They should be up-front about this.)

-How do you balance diet and exercise? Do you have a formula, or am I on my own?

-Remember, there’s no a one-size-fits all weight loss program.

-Talk to your doctor to let him know this is something you’re considering. You can use him as an ally to help you narrow down your program choices. Your doctor will also make sure any diet and exercise changes are safe for you.

So how do you find a healthy program that works? It’s tough, a new study in the journal Obesity says, but it’s possible.

“It is hard for consumers and doctors to tell what is effective and reliable, especially when relying on information found only on the Internet,” says Kimberly Gudzune, MD, MPH, who worked on the study and is a weight loss specialist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Few community weight loss programs offer services that meet at least some of the key components of widely accepted weight loss guidelines.”

Gudzune and her colleagues reviewed web sites for nearly 200 weight loss programs in the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia areas. They included national ones like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, independent operators, and those supervised by doctors or offered by weight-loss surgery centers. The researchers checked to see if the programs followed medical weight loss guidelines from the American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology, and The Obesity Society.

They looked at five key areas: level of support, the diet plan, behavior strategies, exercise, and whether it recommended supplements that weren’t FDA-approved for weight loss. Gudzune says only 9% of the programs met their requirements in the key areas. The study does not name the programs. “I think it speaks to the decades of lack of regulation in this industry. [Weight loss] companies are just doing whatever they feel like. This is the reason it’s so hard to find a reliable program.”

“Getting information solely off Internet ads or TV commercials or from a spokesperson or the person who owns the company gives you a one-sided pitch, which is not that much dissimilar than a snake oil salesman back in the days of the covered wagons,” says Marc Leavey, MD, a primary care specialist with Lutherville Personal Physicians in Maryland. “It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now, but it does make a huge amount of money for weight loss and diet business.”

The researchers hope their findings will prompt an industry facelift, so that practices are more aligned with the “great scientific evidence that we have,” Gudzune says. “If the programs out there delivering services just made slight modifications, that could translate to better outcomes for people who are participating.”

Finding a reliable weight loss program is important. More than a third of people in the U.S. are considered obese. And it’s not just adults. The CDC says 1 in 6 kids are dealing with the condition, too. Weighing too much puts you at risk for many serious health problems, including diabetes and heart disease.

“For more than 40 years, Nutrisystem has provided what consumers need and deserve — sound nutritional science, clinically proven results, and constant innovation to help them meet their weight loss goals,” says company spokeswoman Robin Shallow. “We’re proud to help people on their weight loss journey.”

Lisa Talamini, RD, senior science expert for Jenny Craig, says the company is “pleased” the study was done and that the company meets its criteria. The research “identifies the need for more reliable information” to help doctors point their patients to effective weight loss programs, Talamini says.