Are you looking for a way to lose weight -- quickly and easily? You
may be tempted to try one of the widely advertised weight-loss
programs that use liquid diets, require special diet regimens, or
claim to have medically-qualified staff.
But, before you pay for any weight-loss program, take note: while
many diet programs may help you lose weight, there is little
published evidence that most people maintain that weight loss for any
Being obese has serious health consequences and losing weight can
help reduce these risks. Some experts suggest that losing even 30
percent of excess weight can significantly decrease some obesity-
If you want to lose weight permanently, scientific evidence suggests
it is important to make lifelong changes in how you eat and exercise.
The Council on Scientific Affairs of the American Medical Association
says that only through gradual long-term changes like these can you
effectively lose weight and keep it off.
Be skeptical, then, of approaches that promise easy, quick, or
permanent weight loss. Such loss is likely to be short-term.
The Diet Programs
Dieting in the United States is a big business. A multi-billion
dollar industry caters to approximately 34 million overweight
American adults, millions of whom are dieting at any given time.
As most dieters know, to lose a pound of weight, you need to reduce
caloric intake or increase caloric demand by 3,500 calories. To help
dieters do this, many professional weight-control programs offer
special dietary and exercise plans, as well as psychological support.
Many such programs are independently operated through local
hospitals, clinics, and physician-specialists. Two widely-advertised
Very low calorie diet (VLCD) programs. VLCD programs generally use
400 to 800 calorie-a-day liquid diet formulas as part of a 12 to 16
week supplemented fast. They are often called "semi-starvation"
diets. Available only through physicians in their offices or through
hospital-based programs, VLCD programs require careful medical
screening and constant medical supervision.
Most VLCD programs are targeted to people who are severely obese,
those about 30 percent or more above their ideal body weight. Some
VLCD programs now also accept individuals who are 20 percent or more
above their ideal body weight. Typical weight loss may be around 3
pounds per week for women and 5 pounds per week for men. VLCD
programs cost about $2,000 to $3,000, but some expenses may be
reimbursed through health insurance.
Diet clinics/food plans. Many of these programs are 1,000 to 1,500
calorie-a-day diets, where weight loss averages one or two pounds a
week. You usually follow a carefully controlled menu plan. In some
cases, you may be required to purchase specially-packaged meals
available only from the company -- and not reimbursable through
health insurance. The costs for these programs vary considerably,
ranging from $250 to $1,000 or more. Be wary of initial low-price
offers that may not include all costs.
The Health Consequences
Being obese has serious health consequences.
Complications include increased risk of heart disease, stroke, high
blood pressure, diabetes, gallstones, some forms of cancer, and other
Losing weight can help reduce these risks. In general, the more
slowly you lose weight and the longer you maintain that weight loss,
the safer that diet will be for you.
But dieting itself is not without risk. Studies have reported that
patients on VLCD or other rapid-weight loss programs may run an
increased chance of developing gallstones. Less severe consequences
of dieting include: dizziness, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue,
muscle cramps, bad breath, temporary hair loss, headaches, potassium
deficiencies, and irregular menstrual cycles.
Because of the possible health complications associated with dieting,
you may wish first to ask your physician whether a particular program
is right for you. This is particularly important for those with
diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart, liver, or gallbladder
disease. In addition, parents may want to check with their physician
before placing their children on a diet program. Pregnant women
generally are advised not to go on a diet program.
Questions to Ask
If you are thinking of trying a diet program, getting answers to the
following questions may be helpful.
What does the diet program require you to do?
Decide whether the diet program's requirements -- such as calorie
restrictions -- are acceptable to your level of commitment. Find out
what the diet regimen includes. Are counseling and exercise included?
Must you purchase special foods or vitamins from the company
sponsoring the program? Decide if a diet program that requires using
only selected products will be practical or affordable in the long
How much does the program cost? How do you pay for it?
You can judge costs of programs by adding up all fees and charges,
including prices for initial membership and/or weekly fees, food,
supplements, maintenance, and counseling. Then, compare costs. Find
out how payment is required. Some programs charge large upfront fees
that you may not get back if you drop out. Others allow you to pay as
you go. Be aware that many people who begin diet programs drop out
What are the health risks associated with the diet program?
The National Council Against Health Fraud cautions consumers about
diet programs that do not reveal risks about the specific program, as
well as about weight loss in general. Some diet programs are riskier
than others, and some are better suited for certain kinds of people.
For example, only those significantly overweight should consider
enrolling in a VLCD program.
What kind of maintenance program is provided and at what cost?
Learning how to keep weight off -- through a maintenance program --
is just as important as losing weight. While many diet programs can
help you lose weight, the track record for helping customers maintain
weight loss is not nearly as good. Ask if the maintenance program is
offered as part of the total package -- or optional at additional
cost. Find out what the maintenance program consists of, how long it
lasts, and what you must do. Inquire whether counseling, exercise,
and group meetings are included. Remember that the longer the program
focuses on helping you change your eating and exercise patterns, the
greater the chances of long-term success. If the diet program is not
seriously committed to helping you maintain a sensible eating and
exercise program -- possibly for the rest of your life -- you may
want to look elsewhere.
For More Information
There are additional resources available to help you lose weight. For
example, you may want to contact a registered dietician or clinical
psychologist. If you have complaints about the way a diet program is
advertised or operated, you may want to contact your local consumer
protection agency, Better Business Bureau, or state attorney
In addition, you may want to file a complaint with the
FTC. Write: Correspondence Branch, Federal Trade Commission,
Washington, DC 20580. Complaints about unfair or deceptive
practices by diet programs help the FTC in its law enforcement
Facts for Consumers from the Federal Trade Commission
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