Choosing a Commercial Weight-Loss Program

Topic Overview

Some people find commercial weight-loss programs such as Weight Watchers or Lifesteps helpful. If you decide to join a weight-loss program, here are some questions to ask before you join:

  • Does the program provide counseling to help me change my eating activities and personal habits? A program that focuses only on short-term weight changes and not on long-term lifestyle changes may make it hard to maintain your weight loss. A good program teaches you how to permanently change the eating habits and lifestyle factors (such as lack of physical activity) that have contributed to weight gain.
  • Is the staff made up of qualified counselors and health professionals, such as nutritionists, registered dietitians, doctors, nurses, psychologists, and exercise physiologists? All program staff, regardless of whether they have medical credentials, should have training and experience in helping people with healthy weight loss. If you have health problems, are currently taking any medication, or plan to lose more than 15 lb (6.8 kg) to 20 lb (9.07 kg), you need to be evaluated by a health professional.
  • Is training available on how to deal with times when I may feel stressed and slip back into old habits? The program should help you develop long-term strategies to deal with weight problems you may have in the future. These strategies might include things like setting up a support system and establishing a regular exercise program.
  • Is attention paid to keeping the weight off? How long is this phase? For many people, the biggest problem is not losing weight but keeping it off. If a program does not have a maintenance phase or its maintenance phase is very brief, it may not help you with this important part of your weight-loss program.
  • Are food choices flexible and suitable? The program should consider your food likes and dislikes and your lifestyle. Most people consider a variety of food choices to be important to the success of a weight-loss program.
  • Are weight goals set with the help of a health professional? Weight-loss goals should be realistic and should be reviewed by a health professional.

Other questions that can help you judge how well a program works include the following:

  • What percentage of people complete the program?
  • What is the average weight loss among people who finish the program? (Do not consider a low number to be a sign of a poor program. The program may be more realistic in helping people set weight-loss goals. Slow, gradual weight loss is more likely to be maintained.)
  • What percentage of people have problems or side effects? What are the problems and side effects?
  • Are there fees or costs for additional items, such as dietary supplements?

(These questions were adapted from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's Obesity Education Initiative. For more information, see the agency's Web site at

One way to judge the honesty of a weight-loss program is to ask whether it subscribes to the "Voluntary Guidelines for Providers of Weight Loss Products or Services" published in 1999 by the Partnership for Healthy Weight Management. The Partnership is a coalition of representatives from science, the health care profession, government, commercial enterprises, and other organizations resulting from a 1998 conference sponsored by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. Weight-loss programs that subscribe to these guidelines are more likely to be ethical and responsible at least for providing accurate information about their products and services.

The guidelines state that a weight-loss program should provide information about:

  • The program and the staff qualifications, including a description of the program content and goals and information about the weight management training, experience, certification, and education of the staff.
  • The risks associated with being overweight or obese and the potential benefits of modest weight loss.
  • The risks associated with the product or program, such as with the program itself or any drugs, devices, dietary supplements, or exercise plans used in the treatment. The information should specify when to talk to a health professional and how much weight is healthy to lose and should explain that a very low-calorie diet may be harmful.
  • Costs, including total program costs, attendance fees, reentry fees, medical tests, and any nonrefundable costs.
  • The success of the program, such as what percentage of clients meet their weight-loss goals, how much weight they lose, and how long they maintained their new weight.

The complete guidelines are available at

Related Information


Author Jeannette Curtis
Editor Kathleen M. Ariss, MS
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer Caroline S. Rhoads, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Matthew I. Kim, MD - Endocrinology
Last Updated April 16, 2009

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