Do Weight Loss Centers Deliver?

Money can’t buy love. But can it buy you a trimmer waistline? Millions of Americans shell out big bucks—$1.8 billion in 1995—to find out. Com­mercial weight loss programs, from small local groups to na­tional superchains, are springing up everywhere. But whether weight re­duction centers deliver on their promise de­pends, paradoxically, on your expectations. “Beyond testimonials, most companies don’t have studies to back up their claims,” says weight loss expert Wayne Call‑ away of George Wash‑ Be sure to match the program and your own expectations Washington University in Washington. “Several years back a few ran into trouble with the Federal Trade Commission for pro­moting false and misleading claims.”

But a small study published last year in Nutrition Today offers promising statistics from Weight Watchers, the largest of the weight loss chains. Of those who completed the pro­gram four or more years ago, 37% were still within five pounds of their goal—far exceeding the often quoted 5% success rate of such programs. Still, the study doesn’t ac­count for dropouts.

Should you consider joining a weight loss program? “Pro­grams can help with support,” says nutrition expert Chris Rosenbloom, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic As­sociation. “But the outcome is based on a joint responsibil­ity.” Adds Molly Gee, head nutritionist at The Methodist Hospital in Houston, “If you’re not prepared to do your part, why pay someone to give you guilt? It just sets you up for binge eating.”

When choosing a program, remember that one plan does not fit all. “Some people need a very strict program, while others may do fine on a do-it-yourself regimen,” Dr. Rosen­bloom says. To some degree, choosing a center is a matter of personal preference. Before signing up, ask questions; don’t depend on brochures and the people behind the desk. Con­sider these points before you sign on:

What will it cost?
If payment is required up front, inquire about a money-back guarantee for dropouts and check hidden costs. A company may advertise “Lose all the weight you want for $10” but not mention the nonrefundable $500 health assessment. Or if you’re required to purchase the company’s meals, your small investment can grow into a major one.

Are weight loss goals reasonable?
If the program encourages you to lose more than two pounds a week, stay away. People who lose weight rapidly are like­lier than slow losers to regain it. And very low-calorie diets can be dangerous. Rapid weight loss is clearly associated with an increased risk of gallstones. The number of calories in a very low-calorie diet varies, but in general avoid any program based on fewer than 1,000 calories a day.

Who staffs the program?
Check credentials. The program should be designed by a qualified health professional, such as a registered dietitian. “As for the diet counselors,” says Gee, “I’m not saying you need a registered dietitian, but it’s helpful if the staff has some kind of professional background.” Many program leaders are former clients with little or no formal training. “These people use their experience to help others,” she says. “This has its place, but it doesn’t replace good professional help.” And watch out: You don’t need a diploma to wear a white lab coat and call yourself a diet counselor.
Is behavior modification stressed?

A good program should also address lifestyle changes, such as building exercise into your routine and identifying stress­ful situations that trigger comfort eating. “Weight problems are not just about food,” says Gee. “Sometimes they’re about control, and that’s a psychological issue.” And if the program doesn’t provide a weight maintenance period, don’t bother with it.

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