Do Weight Loss Programs Actually Work? Science Found Out Which Ones Might (Spoiler: Most Of Them Don't)

There are an awful lot of commercial programs out there geared towards helping participants shed a few pounds — but do weight loss programs actually work? A group of researchers from Johns Hopkins University recently conducted a literature review to find out — and the answer probably won't surprise you that much. Spoiler: Most of them don't actually work that well, and the ones that do… well, let's say that there's only so much we can expect from them. Let's take a closer look, shall we?

The goal of the study was to give doctors the information they need in order to refer their patients to the appropriate programs — information which has hitherto been lacking. Said lead author Kimberly Gudzune, weight-loss specialist and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Hopkins, “Primary care doctors need to know what programs have rigorous trials showing that they work, but they haven't had much evidence to rely on. Our review should give clinicians a better idea of what programs they might consider for their patients.” It also might be useful for those of us who aren't doctors but have been considering making a lifestyle change on our own. After all, pretty much everyone is trying to sell us something; we should at least make the effort to find out whether the sales pitch is just that, or whether there might be more to it.

The Study:

The study, which was published in Annals of Internal Medicine, analyzed both peer-reviewed papers collected from research literature databases and from the weight loss programs themselves. Each study used ran for at least 12 weeks and consisted of randomized controlled trials — that is, trials that randomly assigned participants to a commercial weight loss program or other, lower intensity options (handouts and pamphlets, counseling sessions, or no assistance whatsoever, depending on the experiment).

Of the 32 major commercial weight loss programs marketed across the country, only 11 have undergone the kind of testing needed in order to back their claims; as such, those are the programs on which the literature review focused. Programs covered included Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, HMR, Medifast, OPTIFAST, Atkins, SlimFast, the Biggest Loser Club, eDiets, and Lose It!

The Findings:

Only two of the 11 programs — which, you'll recall, was already a significantly whittled-down list — showed that participants lost more weight over a year on them than those assigned to the lower intensity options in each experiment. What are those two programs? Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers. The study noted that NutriSystem showed promise; however, more research over the long term is required before any determination can be made about its overall efficacy. It's one thing to drop the weight in the first place — but keeping it off is what will keep you healthy.

It's also worth noting that, even though Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers were determined to work, the results were “modest” — which means we definitely need to check our expectations about them. Participants in those programs did lose more than the control group, but only by three to five percent.

So... What Now?

Although this study is definitely useful, the most important thing to keep in mind is this: Losing weight doesn't necessarily equal getting healthy. It's far, far better to focus on upping your fitness, rather than concentrating solely on the numbers on the scale. These three pointers are a good place to start:

1. Instead of Crash Diets…

Try switching to something like the Mediterranean or New Nordic diets. Their health benefits have been proven — and perhaps more importantly, they're not about losing weight. They're about eating nutritiously, which will stand you in much better stead in the long run.

2. Get Moving

Dieting is all well and good, but getting fit also involves working out. Work some cardio into your schedule, or strength training, or resistance training — or all of the above. You can even get a workout without feeling like you're working out.

3. Think Long Term

As this former couch potato told BuzzFeed, getting into shape isn't about making a quick change, then reverting back to your old ways — it's about creating a "sustainable healthy lifestyle" you'll stick with over the long term. Plan accordingly.

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