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Choosing a Safe and Successful Weight-loss Program

Do you think you need to lose weight? Have you been thinking about trying a weight-loss program?

You are not alone. More than 70 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or have obesity1 —and many of them try to lose the extra pounds through different kinds of weight-loss programs. A number of these programs are advertised in magazines and newspapers, as well as on the radio, TV, and internet. But are they safe? And will they work for you?

Here you’ll find tips on how to choose a program that may help you lose weight safely and keep it off over time. You’ll also learn how to talk with a health care professional about your weight.

Your health care professional may be able to help you make lifestyle changes to reach and maintain a healthy weight. However, if you’re having trouble making these lifestyle changes—or if these changes aren’t enough to help you reach and stay at a healthy weight—you may want to consider a weight-loss program or other types of treatment.

Where do I start?

Talking with a health care professional about your weight is an important first step. Sometimes, health care professionals may not address issues such as healthy eating, physical activity, and weight during general office visits. You may need to raise these issues yourself. If you feel uneasy talking about your weight, bring your questions with you and practice talking about your concerns before your office visit. Aim to work with your health care professional to improve your health.

Woman talking with a female health care professional
Talking with your health care professional about your weight is an important first step.

Prepare for your visit

Before your visit with a health care professional, think about the following questions:

  • How can I change my eating habits so I can be healthier and reach a healthy weight?
  • How much and what type of physical activity do I think I need to be healthier and reach a healthy weight?
  • Could I benefit from seeing a nutrition professional or weight-loss specialist, or joining a weight-loss program?

You can be better prepared for a visit with a health care professional if you

  • write down all of your questions ahead of time
  • record all of the medicines and dietary supplements you take, or bring them with you
  • write down the types of diets or programs you have tried in the past to lose weight
  • bring a pen and paper, smartphone, or other mobile device to read your questions and take notes

During your visit, a health care professional may

  • review any medical problems you have and medicines you take to see whether they may be affecting your weight or your ability to lose weight
  • ask you about your eating, drinking, and physical activity habits
  • determine your body mass index (BMI) to see whether you’re overweight or have obesity

People who are overweight have a BMI between 25.0 and 29.9. People with obesity have a BMI of 30.0 or higher, and those with extreme obesity have a BMI of 40.0 or higher. You can use this online tool or chart to see what your BMI is.

If a health care professional says you should lose weight, you may want to ask for a referral to a weight-loss program, dietitian, or weight-loss specialist. If you decide to choose a weight-loss program on your own, consider talking with the health care professional about the program before you sign up, especially if you have any health problems.

Ask questions if you don’t understand something your health care professional has said, or if you need more information.

Questions to ask a health care professional

You may want to ask a health care professional the following questions:

  • What is a healthy weight or BMI for me?
  • Will losing weight improve my general health, as well as specific health problems I have?
  • Could any of my medical conditions or medications be causing weight gain or making it harder for me to lose weight?
  • Are there any types or amounts of physical activity I should not do because of my health?
  • What dietary approaches do you recommend I try or avoid?

What should I look for in a weight-loss program?

To reach and stay at a healthy weight over the long term, you must focus on your overall health and lifestyle habits, not just on what you eat. Successful weight-loss programs should promote healthy behaviors that help you lose weight safely, that you can stick with every day, and that help you keep the weight off.

Safe and successful weight-loss programs should include

  • behavioral treatment, also called lifestyle counseling, that can teach you how to develop and stick with healthier eating and physical activity habits—for example, keeping food and activity records or journals
  • information about getting enough sleep, managing stress, and the benefits and drawbacks of weight-loss medicines
  • ongoing feedback, monitoring, and support throughout the program, either in person, by phone, online, or through a combination of these approaches
  • slow and steady weight-loss goals—usually 1 to 2 pounds per week (though weight loss may be faster at the start of a program)
  • a plan for keeping the weight off, including goal setting, self-checks such as keeping a food journal, and counseling support

The most successful weight-loss programs provide 14 sessions or more of behavioral treatment over at least 6 months—and are led by trained staff.2

Some commercial weight-loss programs have all of these components for a safe and successful weight-loss program. Check for these features in any program you are thinking about trying.

Some weight-loss programs use very low-calorie diets to promote quick weight loss—3 or more pounds a week for several weeks—in people with a lot of excess weight. You should be monitored closely by a health care professional if you are on a very low-calorie diet that provides 800 calories a day or less.

Although these diets may help some people lose a lot of weight quickly—for example, 15 pounds in a month—they may not help people keep the weight off long term. These diets also may have related health risks, the most common being gallstones.3

For people who are overweight or have obesity, experts recommend a beginning weight-loss goal of 5 to 10 percent of your starting weight within 6 months.2 If you weigh 200 pounds, that would amount to a loss of 10 pounds, which is 5 percent of starting weight, to 20 pounds, which is 10 percent of starting weight, in 6 months.

Changing your lifestyle isn’t easy, but adopting healthy habits that you don’t give up after a few weeks or months may help you maintain your weight loss. Read how to change your habits for better health.

What if the program is offered online?

Many weight-loss programs are now being offered partly or completely online and through apps for mobile devices. Researchers are studying how well these programs work on their own or together with in-person programs, especially long term. However, experts suggest that these weight-loss programs should provide the following:

  • organized, weekly lessons, offered online or by podcast, and tailored to your personal goals
  • support from a qualified staff person to meet your goals
  • a plan to track your progress on changing your lifestyle habits, such as healthy eating and physical activity, using tools such as cellphones, activity counters, and online journals
  • regular feedback on your goals, progress, and results provided by a counselor through email, phone, or text messages
  • the option of social support from a group through bulletin boards, chat rooms, or online meetings

Whether a program is online or in person, you should get as much background as you can before you decide to join.

Woman holding a laptop and sitting on the floor with outstretched legs
Many weight-loss programs are now being offered online and through apps for mobile devices.

What questions should I ask about a weight-loss program?

Weight-loss program staff should be able to answer questions about the program’s features, safety, costs, and results. Find out if the program you’re interested in is based on current research about what works for reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.

A first and very important question to ask of commercial weight-loss programs is, “Has your company published any reports in peer-reviewed, scientific journals about the safety and effectiveness of your program?”

If the response is “yes,” ask for a copy of the report or how you could get it. If the answer is “no,” the program is harder to evaluate and may not be as favorable a choice as programs that have published such information. If you have questions about the findings, discuss the report with your health care professional.

Here are some other questions you may want to ask:

What does the program include?

Eating

  • Am I expected to follow a specific meal plan?
  • Am I encouraged to write down what I eat each day?
  • Do I have to buy special meals or supplements? If so, what are the daily or weekly costs?
  • Does the program offer healthy meal-plan suggestions that I could stick with?
  • If the program requires special foods, can I make changes based on my likes, dislikes, and any food allergies I may have?

Physical Activity

  • Does the program include a physical activity plan?
  • Does the program offer ways to help me be more physically active and stay motivated?

Counseling

  • Does the program offer one-on-one or group counseling to help me develop and stick with my healthier habits?
  • Does the program include a trained coach or counselor to help me overcome roadblocks and stay on track?

Weight Maintenance

  • Does the program include a plan to help me keep off the weight I’ve lost?
  • What does that program include? Will there be ongoing counseling support?

Other Features

  • How long is the actual weight-loss program?
  • How long is the weight-loss maintenance program?
  • Does the program require that I take any kind of medicine?
  • Can I speak with a doctor or certified health professional if I need to?
  • Can I change the program to meet my lifestyle, work schedule, and cultural needs?
  • Will the program help me cope with such issues as stress or social eating, getting enough sleep, changes in work schedules, lack of motivation, and injury or illness?
  • Is the program in person? Is there an online part to the program?
Group of men and women in an exercise class
Find out if the program offers ways to help you be more physically active.

What kind of education or training do staff members have?

These questions are especially important if you are considering a medically supervised program that encourages quick weight loss (3 or more pounds a week for several weeks):

  • Does a doctor or other certified health professional run or oversee the program?
  • Does the program include specialists in nutrition, physical activity, behavior change, and weight loss?
  • What type of certifications, education, experience, and training do staff members have? How long, on average, have most of the staff been working with the program?

Does the program or product carry any risks?

  • Could the program cause health problems or be harmful to me in any way?
  • Is there ongoing input and follow-up to ensure my safety while I’m in the program?
  • Will the program’s doctor or staff work with my health care professional if needed—for example, to address how the program may affect an ongoing medical issue?

How much does the program cost?

  • What is the total cost of the program, from beginning to end?
  • Are there costs that are not included in that total, such as membership fees or fees for
    • weekly visits
    • food, meal replacements, supplements, or other products
    • medical tests
    • counseling sessions
    • follow-up to maintain the weight I’ve lost

What results do people in the program typically achieve?

  • How much weight does the average person lose?
  • How long does the average person keep the weight off?
  • Do you have written information on these and other program results?
  • Are the results of the program published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal?

What if I need more help losing weight?

If a weight-loss program is not enough to help you reach a healthy weight, ask your health care professional about other types of weight-loss treatments. Prescription medicines to treat overweight and obesity, combined with healthy lifestyle changes, may help some people reach a healthy weight. For some people who have extreme obesity, bariatric surgery may be an option.

References

Clinical Trials

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) and other components of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conduct and support research into many diseases and conditions.

What are clinical trials, and are they right for you?

Clinical trials are part of clinical research and at the heart of all medical advances. Clinical trials look at new ways to prevent, detect, or treat disease. Researchers also use clinical trials to look at other aspects of care, such as improving the quality of life for people with chronic illnesses. Find out if clinical trials are right for you.

What clinical trials are open?

Clinical trials that are currently open and are recruiting can be viewed at www.ClinicalTrials.gov.

July 2017
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This content is provided as a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health. The NIDDK translates and disseminates research findings through its clearinghouses and education programs to increase knowledge and understanding about health and disease among patients, health professionals, and the public. Content produced by the NIDDK is carefully reviewed by NIDDK scientists and other experts.

The NIDDK would like to thank:
Thomas A. Wadden, Ph.D., Albert J. Stunkard Professor in Psychiatry; Director Emeritus, Center for Weight and Eating Disorders, Department of Psychiatry, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania