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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 significant time.

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- related consequences.

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 programs are:

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 illnesses.

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 run.

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 early.

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 general's office.

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 efforts.

Facts for Consumers from the Federal Trade Commission

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