Do Commercial Weight Loss Programs Work?

May 9th, 2015

Has your doctor recommended a weight loss program? Research has shown that patients advised to lose weight by their physicians dropped more pounds on average than those who didn’t receive a recommendation. It is certainly a promising finding, but it leaves the question of how overweight patients should go about losing weight? Should patients be referred to a specialist who can help them understand medical and surgical treatment options? Or if patients are going to try to lose weight on their own, what direction should they turn? No doubt you’ve seen dozens of popular commercial weight loss programs available, so which – if any -should be recommended?

In an effort to help physicians guide patients who want to try out a commercial weight loss program, John Hopkins researchers reviewed 4200 studies, looking for solid evidence of their effectiveness. Finding accurate data was difficult because of the thousands of studies, only a few dozen met the scientific “gold standard” of reliability. Of these studies, the results showed that just a couple of commercial programs were “effective”. Of the 32 major commercial weight-loss programs marketed nationwide, only 11 had been rigorously studied in randomized controlled trials. From these studies, only two programs (Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig) were supported by quality data showing that on average participants lost more weight after one year in these programs than people who were trying to lose weight without a program. The question for the scientists then became: “how much weight were these people losing on these programs”? The answer was relatively disappointing with participants losing on average 3—5% more weight than the control group. While any weight loss can be beneficial, many people need to lose more than 5% of their weight to achieve the health or life benefits they seek.

Given these findings, it may be reasonable for physicians to refer patients to Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig, especially if they do not need to lose a significant amount of weight. Some other programs may be effective, but need further study. However, these programs are most realistic for a patient who would consider it a success to lose 3-5% of their weight.

What about someone who needs to lose a substantial amount of weight? For obese patients, weight loss surgery is considered the strongest treatment option, and it is known to be one of the most effective and longest lasting treatments for obesity-related conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Weight loss procedures such as the gastric sleeve, gastric bypass and gastric band are important options for people struggling with obesity to learn more about.

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