You do not need to join a program to lose weight. However, if you're having trouble losing weight on your own (and many people do), a weight loss program may be helpful. Weight loss programs can have a number of advantages, such as providing peer support, guidance from professionals, and helping you focus on your goals. However, be careful about which program you choose -- some programs promise more than they can deliver.
What to look for in a program
How do you know which group to join? Ask the following questions about any weight loss program that you are considering:
- What does the program promise? If the program claims that you can lose a lot of weight quickly, it is probably not a good program.
- Does the program encourage you to keep a balanced diet? Everyone should keep a diet that includes all types of foods. Be careful if the program emphasizes one type of food over the others, such as high-protein diets.
- Does the program encourage physical fitness? Physical activity is key to living healthfully, and you should strive to be active throughout your life. Plus, physical activity is a cornerstone to losing weight.
- Does the program teach you to be self-sufficient? You won't want to pay for a weight loss program your whole life, and when you leave, you should be able to maintain your weight on your own. For example, programs that require you to buy food from them do not teach you how to shop, cook, or order from restaurants on your own.
- Does the program provide what you are looking for? Consider your needs. Why do you want to join a program in the first place? Different groups offer different things. Choose one that is a good fit with your life.
- Does the program push weight loss medications? You should consider taking a weight loss medication ONLY if you are medically obese (BMI higher than 30) and have not been able to lose weight by making adequate and appropriate lifestyle changes. If you are considering medication to help you lose weight, make sure you are working with a doctor who knows your medical history.
- Does the program screen you for health risks? Only join a program that assesses your health status before you begin. A program that is willing to take anyone, regardless of their health, could be dangerous.
- Are you attracted to the program because of a celebrity endorser? Celebrity endorsements can be a powerful draw. Remember that most celebrities are not health experts. These programs are not necessarily poor choices, but you should look carefully at what they can do for you and if they can fulfill your needs.
Many popular diets sound very appealing because they tend to offer a "quick fix." Remember that no specific diet is a magic cure. Again, there are two key guidelines in any successful diet program:
Go slow and steady to win the weight loss race.
Develop habits that stick with you for the long term.
Many popular diets are just fads. A fad diet is any gimmick that does not provide the proper balance of nutrients or can only be sustained for a short period of time. In addition, fad diets are NOT based on proven science, even though almost everyone knows someone who did well on a given diet. Beware of claims like "Lose 30 lbs in 30 days!", "Scientific miracle - medical breakthrough!" or "Keep the weight off for good -- just $39.99!" While such statements are tempting and play off your emotions, they are usually made by companies wanting to get rich off your desire to lose weight, so keep them in perspective.
Examples of some popular diets include:
- Food combining diets -- These diets claim that eating foods in specific combinations or only at certain times of day promote weight loss. There is no scientific merit to food combining diets.
- Liquid diets -- Liquid diets are a short-term answer to a long-term problem. Liquid diets cannot provide all of the nutrients you need to stay healthy, and are ultimately unsustainable. Have you ever tried eating nothing but liquid for any length of time? Most people can't do it, and nobody should! Liquid protein diets have been associated with heart abnormalities and sudden death. However, some liquid diets, when combined with eating healthy solid foods and done under the supervision of a health care provider, have been shown to promote and sustain weight loss over a 2-year period.
- High protein diets -- High protein diets work by reducing your intake of carbohydrates like pasta, rice, and sugar. While it is important to eat fewer of these simple carbohydrates, on these diets you make up for their absence by replacing them with protein. It is extremely difficult to eat large quantities of protein without consuming too much fat and too few vitamins and minerals. You need protein in your diet, but only in moderation, along with a healthy balance of other nutrients. Eating too much protein can be dangerous, as it can cause damage to your kidneys and your bones. Scientific studies are just beginning to examine the high protein diet approach to determine if it is truly effective for losing weight, or if it is safe, particularly if followed for a long time. Despite the recent popularity and media attention of such high protein diets, most scientific organizations advise against this approach and recommend the tried and true approach of lean protein, whole grains, lots of fruits and vegetables, and low fat dairy. (See Step 5.)
Jeffrey Heit, MD, Internist with special emphasis on preventive health, fitness and nutrition, Philadelphia VA Medical Center, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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