For people who need to lose a lot of weight, it might be tough to find a program in their community that meets nationally recommended guidelines for shedding pounds, researchers suggest.
In a new study, almost 200 weight-loss programs were evaluated on whether they included five key standards: high-intensity intervention of at least 14 sessions in six months; an evidence-based diet; physical activity guidelines; self-monitoring tools such as food tracking, and a recommendation against the use of nutritional supplements, said study author Dr. Kimberly Gudzune. She is a weight-loss specialist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in Baltimore.
Those standards are agreed upon by the American Heart Association, the American College of Cardiology and the Obesity Society, Gudzune said.
But very few programs in the study met the standards, the researchers found.
“There is very little oversight [of weight-loss programs], and it’s hard for consumers and medical professionals alike to tell what is effective, reliable and meets guidelines’ standards,” Gudzune said in a statement.
Her team found 191 weight-loss programs in the Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Virginia areas. “We used the Web to identify weight-loss programs in those areas,” she said, because that is how most people who want to lose weight would start their search for help.
The researchers then searched the websites of those programs for what information there was on the five widely recommended criteria for effective weight loss.
“Only 1 percent of the programs even mentioned all those [five] criteria on their website,” Gudzune said. And only 9 percent actually adhered in some way to the guidelines, she said.
Next, the researchers interviewed the organizers of 52 weight-loss programs by telephone. They graded 6 percent of the programs as highly adherent to criteria based on website information, but 19 percent were graded high after the telephone interview. That suggests that calling the programs or visiting is crucial to determine how well they are run, Gudzune said.
The findings, published Feb. 10 in the journal Obesity, indicate that more oversight is needed for weight-loss programs around the country, Gudzune said.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission regulates the weight-loss and supplement industry by checking advertising claims, but Gudzune said that oversight should be expanded, requiring weight-loss programs to disclose practices and how well they meet widely accepted weight-loss standards.
One expert said that doctors also need to do their part.
“Regulation might improve what is on the websites, but the important role of physicians diagnosing obesity is referring their patients to reputable professionals in their community,” said Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis. That, she said, “is something that can be done through medical partnerships, health insurance companies or universities.”
The findings on the lack of information on the websites did not surprise Diekman. “Websites are not designed to provide all the information about their product or programs, since that would make it easy for individuals to find a reason to avoid ‘making the call,’ ” she said.
To learn more about losing weight, visit the American Heart Association.