Research: Commercial weight-loss programs are ineffective for meaningful weight loss

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You have seen the ads for Nutrisystems with multiple stars claiming to lose the weight with their packages meals with minimal to no effort.  Despite popular belief, most of the commercial weight loss programs are somewhat less effective than the ads will make you believe.  The actors are paid for their endorsement and attempt to use the products, and I suspect even Dan Marino achieved weight loss with additional help that just the products he is peddling.  

About four years ago, I tried the Nutrisystems approach.  I tried to stick to the program but found the food less than fulfilling.  About ten years ago, I fell for a book called Body for Life and the meal replacement shakes.  The book was little more than an infomercial full of testimonies urging readers to buy their supplements.  The book was full of outlandish claims of massive weight loss with little more than some exercise and the powdered putrid drinks they peddle.   

As a physician, I have known for years that these commercial programs fail more often than not because I have seen patient after patients fail while using them.  I suspect that diets that focus on portion control and real food (not prepackaged putrid meal replacement products) would be more effective.  I have yet to see a research article that focuses on real food that is prepackages.  

Face it, commercial diets have a long history of promising big losses with little to no change in your lifestyle, but does the science back up these claims?  The good news is that a new study looked to tackle this very claim.  This study, published in the Journal of Health Psychology in 2017, looked at existing evidence regarding weight loss among overweight but otherwise healthy adults who use commercial weight-loss programs[1] .  The researchers performed a systematic search of 3 databases identified 11 randomized controlled trials and 14 observational studies of commercial meal-replacement, calorie-counting, or pre-packaged meal programs which met inclusion criteria.  The researchers found that 57 percent of individuals who commenced a commercial weight program lost less than 5 percent of their initial body weight.  Since they lost less than 5% of their body weight, the programs failed to deliver meaningful weight loss.  The studies also had a high attrition rate.  

The bottom line:  Commercial weight-loss programs frequently fail to produce even modest weight loss.  Clinically meaningful weight loss is rare and high rates of attrition are the norm.  This suggests that many consumers find dietary changes required by these programs unsustainable.  I would argue that the programs are not worth the price of joining them and you would be better off just doing portion control on your own.  


S. M. McEvedy, G. Sullivan-Mort, S. A. McLean, M. C. Pascoe, and S. J. Paxton, “Ineffectiveness of commercial weight-loss programs for achieving modest but meaningful weight loss: Systematic review and meta-analysis,” J Health Psychol, vol. 22, no. 12, pp. 1614–1627, May 2017 [Online]. Available: 10.1177/1359105317705983″ target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>
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About the Author

I am a family physician who has served in the US Army. In 2016, I found myself overweight, out of shape, and unhealthy, so I made a change to improve my health. This blog is the chronology of my path to better health and what I have learned along the way.

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