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Choosing a Safe & Successful Weight-loss Program

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If you’ve been thinking about trying a weight-loss program, you’re not alone. Nearly 3 in 4 U.S. adults (73%) have overweight or obesity, and many would like to lose excess weight.1

A number of these programs are advertised on social media, the internet, magazines, and other media. But are they safe? And will they work for you?

Here are some tips on how to choose a weight-loss program that may help you lose weight safely. You’ll also learn how to talk with a health care professional about your weight and what questions to ask program staff before you decide to join a weight-loss program.

What is a weight-loss program?

A weight-loss program is more than a book or app that promises to help you lose weight. It is a formal program that gives you ongoing guidance and support to build healthy lifestyle habits that may promote weight loss.2 The program should include

  • a healthy, reduced-calorie eating and drinking plan
  • a plan for increasing physical activity if appropriate
  • guidance and support for adopting these lifestyle habits
  • a plan for keeping the weight off

Is a weight-loss program a good option for me?

If you have overweight or obesity, losing weight may prevent or reduce weight-related problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. Losing weight may also improve your quality of life. Ask your health care professional about safe and effective ways to lose weight.

Talk with your health care professional about your weight

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

Talking with a health care professional about your weight is an important first step. Sometimes, health care professionals may not address issues such as the benefits of choosing healthy food and drinks, physical activity, and weight during a general office visit. You may need to bring up these issues yourself.

If you feel uneasy talking about your weight, practice talking about your concerns before your office visit and bring your questions with you. Sample questions can include

  • “Am I at a healthy weight?”
  • “How is my weight affecting my health?”
  • “Will losing weight improve my general health, as well as specific health problems I have?”

During your visit, your health care professional may

  • ask you about your eating, drinking, and physical activity habits
  • measure your body mass index (BMI) and other health factors to find out if you are at a healthy weight
  • review any medical problems you have and medicines or dietary supplements you take to see whether they may be affecting your weight or your ability to lose weight

Ask about safe and effective ways to lose weight

If your health care professional advises you to lose weight, ask about safe and effective ways to do so. For many adults, treating overweight and obesity starts with lifestyle changes. Your health care professional may work with you to develop a weight-loss program tailored to your needs and preferences. They may also refer you to a registered dietitian or a specific program. If you already have a weight-loss program in mind, ask your health care professional if the program may be a good fit for you.

Overweight and obesity may also be treated with weight-loss medicines and weight-loss surgery, also called metabolic and bariatric surgery. Health care professionals most often recommend lifestyle changes along with medicines or surgery. Ask your health care professional whether you should consider these options.

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

Successful weight-loss programs promote healthy behaviors that may help you lose weight safely and keep the weight off.

Check for these features in any weight-loss program you are thinking about trying.

Realistic weight-loss goals

Successful weight-loss programs help you set realistic goals for weight loss. Experts recommend an initial weight-loss goal of 5% to 10% of your starting weight within 6 months.2 For example, if you weigh 200 pounds, your goal may be to lose about 10 pounds in the first 6 months.

A healthy eating plan that is low in calories

Successful weight-loss programs provide guidance and support for adopting a healthy eating plan that is low in calories. Although studies suggest that different eating and drinking plans may promote weight loss, some plans may be better suited for you than others.3 The best plan is one that is backed by science and is tailored to your health, cultural needs and preferences, and values—so you can stick with it over the long term.

Physical activity plan

A group of men and women in an exercise class.Find out if the program offers ways to help you be more physically active.

The weight-loss program should include a plan for getting regular physical activity. The amount and type of activity will depend on your personal health and ability. Over time, some people may work up to 150 minutes or more per week of aerobic activities—activities that make you breathe harder and make your heart beat faster.2 Although increased physical activity may not have a big impact on your weight loss, it has important health benefits that are independent of weight loss itself. Physical activity may also help you keep off any weight you lose.

Guidance and support for adopting healthy habits

Successful weight-loss programs help you set specific goals for adopting healthy lifestyle habits and tracking your progress.2

The program should provide3,4,5

  • counseling on how to develop and stick with healthier lifestyle habits, including how to set goals, address barriers, and overcome setbacks
  • support for monitoring your eating, drinking, sleep, and physical activity every day and for checking your weight every week
  • regular feedback, monitoring, and support throughout the program—either in person, by phone, online, or using a combination of these approaches
  • the option of social support from a group

A plan for keeping the weight off

Maintaining weight loss can be hard. Sticking with your new lifestyle habits is key to long-term success. Strategies that may help prevent weight regain include3

  • following an eating plan appropriate for your new weight
  • getting 150 to 300 minutes or more of physical activity per week6
  • monitoring your weight at least once a week

Look for a program that will give ongoing support, such as counseling sessions, for keeping the weight off.

What if the program is offered online?

Most weight-loss programs use the internet, smartphones, or other digital devices in some way. But some programs may be delivered fully online or using these devices, with no in-person contact.

Digital weight-loss programs, also called virtual weight-loss programs, are still being researched. Studies suggest that some virtual programs may work if they include the key features described above.3,7 But researchers are still studying whether virtual weight-loss programs are effective, especially in the long term.

If you’re thinking about joining a virtual weight-loss program, make sure it includes

  • weekly sessions, offered online, that are tailored to your personal goals
  • support from a trained professional, such as a registered dietitian, health counselor, or lifestyle coach 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 online meetings or chat groups
A woman using a laptop and drinking a smoothie.Many weight-loss programs are now being offered online and through apps for mobile devices.

Which weight-loss programs should I avoid?

Whether a program is virtual or in person, you should get as much background as you can before you decide to join. Here are some warning signs to consider.

Too many promises

Stay away from weight-loss programs that make these types of promises

  • Lose weight without diet or exercise!
  • Lose weight while eating as much as you want of all your favorite foods!
  • Lose 30 pounds in 30 days!
  • Lose weight in a specific part of your body!

Other warning signs

Other warning signs to look out for include

  • very small print, asterisks, and footnotes, which may make it easy to miss important information
  • before-and-after photos or personal endorsements that seem too good to be true

Talk with your health care professional about these types of claims. You can report false claims or scams by weight-loss programs to the Federal Trade Commission.

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

Weight-loss program staff should be able to answer questions about a program’s features, safety, costs, and results.

Do studies show that your program works?

Find out if there is evidence that the program works. If not, you may want to consider a different program.

  • Has your program been formally studied to find out if it is safe and effective?
  • Have study results been published in a scientific journal?
  • Can I get a copy or a link to the study findings?

If you have questions about a study’s findings, discuss the findings with your health care professional.

How does your program work?

  • How can your program help me lose weight?
  • How long does your program last?
  • How is the program delivered? In person? Online? By smartphone?
  • Can I change the program to meet my lifestyle, work schedule, and cultural needs and preferences?

How much does your 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
    • online chat access

What does your program include?

Healthy eating guidance

  • Do I need to follow a specific meal plan?
  • Do I need to track what I eat each day?
  • Do I have to buy special meals or supplements? If so, what are the daily or weekly costs?
  • Does your program offer healthy meal plan suggestions that are easy for me to follow?
  • If your program requires special foods, can I make changes based on my likes, dislikes, cultural preferences, and any food allergies I may have?

Physical activity guidance

  • Does your program include a physical activity plan?
  • How does your program address different ability levels and intensity of physical activity?
  • Do I need to join a gym or structured exercise program?
  • Does your program include physical activities that can be done in short periods of time and in different locations—for example, at home, work, or during travel?
  • How can your program help me be more physically active and stay motivated?


  • Does your program offer one-on-one or group counseling to help me develop and stick with my healthier habits?
  • Does your program include a trained coach or counselor who can help me overcome roadblocks and stay on track?
  • Will the program help me cope with issues such as stress or social eating, getting enough sleep, changes in work schedules, lack of motivation, and injury or illness?

A plan for keeping the weight off

  • Does your program include a plan to help me keep off the weight I’ve lost?
  • How long is the weight-loss maintenance program?
  • What does the weight-loss maintenance program include?

What kind of education or training do staff members have?

  • Does a doctor or other certified health professional run or oversee the program? Can I speak with a doctor or certified health professional if I need to?
  • Does the program include certain experts, such as a registered dietitian, mental health counselor, or exercise physiologist?
  • 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?
  • Are your staff members trained in cultural competence?

What results do people in your program typically achieve?

  • How much weight does the average person lose?
  • How long does the average person keep the weight off?

What are the risks of your program?

  • 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?

Clinical Trials for Weight-loss Programs

NIDDK conducts and supports clinical trials in many diseases and conditions, including overweight and obesity. The trials look to find new ways to prevent, detect, or treat disease and improve quality of life.

What are clinical trials for weight-loss programs?

Clinical trials—and other types of clinical studies—are part of medical research and involve people like you. When you volunteer to take part in a clinical study, you help health care professionals and researchers learn more about disease and improve health care for people in the future.

Researchers are studying many aspects of weight-loss programs, such as

  • strategies to promote weight loss and help prevent type 2 diabetes
  • family-based programs to encourage healthy habits and weight management for parents and children
  • new ways to use digital technology to enhance weight-loss programs
  • how lifestyle programs can support patients taking weight-loss medications

Find out if clinical studies are right for you.

Watch a video of NIDDK Director Dr. Griffin P. Rodgers explaining the importance of participating in clinical trials.

What clinical studies on weight-loss programs are looking for participants?

You can view a filtered list of federally funded, open, and recruiting clinical studies that focus on weight-loss programs at www.ClinicalTrials.gov. You can expand or narrow the list to include clinical studies from industry, universities, and individuals; however, the National Institutes of Health does not review these studies and cannot ensure they are safe for you. Always talk with your health care provider before you participate in a clinical study.

What have we learned about weight-loss programs from NIDDK-funded research?

NIDDK has supported many research projects to learn more about weight-loss programs, including the Look AHEAD (Action for Health in Diabetes) study. The Look AHEAD study showed that people who had type 2 diabetes as well as overweight or obesity can lose weight and maintain some of that weight loss through a program of intense lifestyle changes, such as healthy eating and increased physical activity. The study also showed that weight loss provides other health benefits, such as better physical mobility and improved blood glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.


Last Reviewed February 2024
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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. NIDDK translates and disseminates research findings to increase knowledge and understanding about health and disease among patients, health professionals, and the public. Content produced by NIDDK is carefully reviewed by NIDDK scientists and other experts.

NIDDK would like to thank:
Samuel Klein, M.D., Washington University School of Medicine