How to Wisely Choose a Weight-Loss Program

There’s no shortage of weight-loss programs from which to choose. Here, diet experts share their advice on making good choices.


Deciding the time has come to lose weight – whether it’s for your joints, cardiovascular health or your 25th high school reunion – presents yet another choice: How are you going to do it? Structured weight-loss programs may be the best means to achieve your goals.

According to the National Weight Control Registry, a database of 10,000-plus individuals who have lost 30 pounds or more and kept the weight off for at least a year, about half of these weight-loss winners did it on their own and about half participated in a structured program.

“Often, people can accomplish great things on their own,” says Howard Eisenson, MD, director of Duke University’s Diet and Fitness Center, Durham, NC. Some people, however – particularly those with more than 25 pounds to lose or those who feel “stuck” after a few diet failures – may more easily reach their goals with the extra accountability and support that comes with a structured weight-loss program, Eisenson says. 

There are hundreds of options when it comes to selecting a program, from doctor-supervised regimens to group-oriented settings to meal replacement plans, and few of these are cheap. Here, Dr. Eisenson and Adrienne Youdim, MD, medical director of Cedars-Sinai Weight Loss Center, Los Angeles, offer some insight into what to look for – and what to void – when choosing a weight-loss program.  

Look for:

  • A balanced approach. The program should address and emphasize healthier eating habits, increased physical activity and behavioral strategies and modifications to promote lasting change.
  • A professional staff. Look for program leaders who have appropriate professional education, credentials and experience. This includes registered dietitians, certified personal trainers, and health professionals with specialized training in bariatric medicine or weight management.
  • An individualized plan. A tailored weight-loss approach, Dr. Eisenson says, requires a thorough assessment of your current health status as well as a thoughtful evaluation of your needs, goals, resources and physical and emotional challenges. 
  • Flexibility. Extreme plans that severely restrict, eliminate or demonize food groups can sometimes help you lose weight quickly, but are difficult to maintain and can lead to regaining the weight, says Dr. Youdim.
  • Professional follow up and long-term support. Staff should also be able and willing to answer all your questions before you enroll and provide you with opportunities to talk with people who have gone through the program.


  • Programs that over-promise. “While ALL weight-loss programs can provide some extraordinary success stories, it is important to understand what kind of results are typical. If a behaviorally based weight-loss program can consistently help people lose approximately 10 percent of body weight, they are doing well,” says Dr. Eisenson.
  • Programs dependent on “gimmicks.” This includes, Dr. Eisenson says, an emphasis on dietary supplements or weight-loss agents or medications. “These are often expensive, of very limited or unproven value and sometimes of questionable safety.” He notes that these caveats don’t include programs that feature balanced meal replacements, such as shakes and bars, which studies have shown are helpful weight-loss tools.
  • Plans that promote expensive testing. Extensive lab studies and other diagnostic testing, such as full body imaging scans to measure body fat, are rarely necessary. Body composition can be estimated adequately with simple, inexpensive methods, such as measuring waist circumference or calculating body mass index. If you’re not sure whether a test is appropriate, ask your doctor is there is scientific evidence to support its use outside of research studies.
  • Programs that promise rapid weight loss. Without supervision by a health care professional who understands the potential health and safety concerns, rapid weight loss can be dangerous. “A person may need to change the type or dosage of their medications, for example,” says Dr. Youdim. “You need to know that someone is evaluating these issues and is qualified to manage them.”

Updated November 2015

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