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How to Choose a Commercial Weight-Loss Program

Weight loss is a multi-billion dollar industry, which, if it actually worked, should have put itself out of business by now.

Of course, anyone, who has ever lost weight (including probably patients who have been through our program), realises that losing weight is one thing – unfortunately, keeping it off is a whole different story.

So all that really counts in any program should be how patients do in the long term and how much weight (if any) participants can actually keep off.

Even more important perhaps would be the question whether clients actually get any healthier (if they do, then what ultimately happens to weight may not really matter that much).

I would argue that even more importantly, weight management programs should, if possible address the root cause of the problem (eating too much is a symptom, not a diagnosis!).

As my readers are well aware, there is certainly a wide range of commercial weight loss programs, services and products to chose from – while some have solid science and considerable evidence behind them, others promise quick and easy results that defy scientific rationale and good medical practice.

So how is the consumer to decide?

Some guidance is provided on Alberta’s MyHealth website, which has the following recommendations to offer (adapted):

Questions to ask before joining a weight loss program:

  • Does the program provide counselling to help me change my eating activities and personal habits?
  • Is the staff made up of qualified counsellors and health professionals, such as nutritionists, registered dietitians, doctors, nurses, psychologists, and exercise physiologists?
  • Is training available on how to deal with times when I may feel stressed and slip back into old habits?
  • Is attention paid to keeping the weight off? How long is this phase?
  • Are food choices flexible and suitable?
  • Are weight goals set with the help of a health professional?
  • What percentage of people complete the program?
  • What is the average weight loss among people who finish the program?
  • 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?

In addition programs should provide information on:

  • 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, re-entry 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 key of course is not to just accept boiler plate answers but to question those answers and do your own research on the claims and credentials of the program.

Remember – if it sound’s too good to be true – it is probably a lie!

I would certainly love to hear from my readers on how they were misinformed or duped by commercial weight loss programs – please do not name specific programs but rather describe in general terms some of the experiences you may have had with program X, Y, or Z in the past and the reasons why you think you fell for it.

I’d also be interested in any additional tips and rules that my readers may wish to propose on finding an appropriate program.

Edmonton, Alberta


  1. Dr. Sharma,

    With respect to answering the question you posed this morning on your post about telling you how I have been misinformed or duped by commercial weight loss programs, just where would you like me to start?? lol.

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  2. One other point, Dr. Sharma. In all fairness and with all due respect, there is not ONE weight loss program out there that I’ve found (including your own program or clinic) that successfully answers ALL of the questions posed by Alberta’s MyHealth website and/or yourself. And, trust me, I believe in familiar with the vast majority of them – in Alberta at least.

    Some are just significantly better than others.

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  3. The most important question of all is not on your list: Is this plan something I can do for the rest of my life? The food must be, on some level, appealing (in addition to “flexible and suitable”), even if it represents an adjustment (in preparation, etc.) to what you have normally eaten. No counsellor, regardless of credentials, can force you to suddenly and permanently like foods or food additives (protein powders, etc.) you do not like. Note too, if the food is pre-packaged, you won’t be able to tolerate it indefinitely. The various meals may start out tasting great to you, but eventually will all taste bland and identical to one another over time. Moreover, your family eventually will run out of patience if you insist on microwaving a separate meal for yourself at every gathering. At first it’s a novelty, and they’re real supportive, but this will not last. On the other side of the equation, does this plan or program promote the kind of exercise that I can and will do most days, forever?

    How to question the answers to all questions (as Dr. S recommends): “What is your source on that?” If the answer is a study, ask for a copy of it and read skeptically. Look for “spin” in in-house studies, conflicts of interest in presumably “objective” studies. If the answer is a series of personal anecdotes, nod your head and then once you’re away from the office or gym, don’t return. Pay attention to asterisks: “*Results not typical” may be the only truth they’re telling you, and it may be an enormous understatement.

    Dr. S, you asked for stories, but don’t want us to name names. Hmmm. How to say this? Well, locally, apparently, someone had such strong feelings about a highly advertised, popular program, that she painted both sides of her van with the following: “XXX will only leave your WALLET Slim 4 Life.” I crack up every time I see that van toodling around town.

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  4. Back in the early 80s, I tried one of those programs that provide you with meals which you supplement with your own produce and dairy. The cost, without the meals, was $600.00 (which they later dropped to $300.00 when I balked). They promised counselling and an exercise program in addition to the meals. Well, their “counselling” was just me and the other program participants sitting in the waiting room, waiting for the weekly weigh-in. There was no exercise program or even a consultation to help me come up with a plan I could do. The meals were in very small portions and tasted awful. Needless to say, I didn’t last long on that diet.

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  5. I attended my first commercial weight loss program when I was 17, convinced I was grossly fat, and confirmed by the program’s leader who said I needed to lose “at least 11 lbs!” By sane standards I was slim, muscular, and healthy. Applauded and praised for losing 3 lbs in the first week, I knew my body just HAD to be broken because I had lost that amount by cutting their recommended serving amounts in half most days, and other days I had fasted. I was sure I couldn’t lose weight eating a “normal” amount of food–and sure enough I started to gain when I tried to follow their diet plan–a self fulfilling construction of evidence that my body did not function correctly. Oh, the tyranny of linking my oppression to body size and eating! The drama and high emotional stimuli provided by obsession with eating and weight kept me distracted from my inner life for many years to come. Kept me from knowing myself and kept me from recognizing the actual broken parts–not inside me–but within the social structure from which there is no escape.

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  6. Hi, Dr. Sharma.

    This is an excellent article. I support you 100 %.

    I wish more people out there would realize that they need to look toward qualified, genuine scientists and medical professionals expereinced in treating obesity, rather than these LAYMAN Internet gurus with websites selling everyoine products and books and cult like forums.

    Internet forums are not valid sources of obesity information at all . Over 98 % of the stuff out there on forums is utter bollocks.

    Some people very qualified to assess the relevant scientific literature include yourself, Dr. Stephan Guyenet, Dr. Linda Bacon, Dr. Jeffrey Friedman, Dr. Fred Turek etc. I won’t mention names but LAYMAN who have Internet sites , who are part of the commercial dieting industry , and are selling you their latest book are NOT scientific authoriies at all. Not in the slightest, yet they are linked to and quoted as if they are experts.

    Hopefully , more people will see this, and hopefully they also will realize the commercial diet industry exists precariously on false promises and false assumptions about obesity.I hope they will ignore these people.

    None of the Internet gurus realize their limitations, nor do their followers. All these commercial diet websites start off with the same hokey story.

    I am more informed than they are – much more so, but I am a layman. As such, I realize my own limitations. I, Razwell, am not an authentic scientist.

    But educated laymen will be able to identify a genuine source of valid scientific information. One of the clues is acknowledging uncertainty and vast unknowns.

    Take care,


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