7 Ways to Tell if a Weight-Loss Program Is Actually Legit

Do your homework before starting any weight-loss program, to make sure it's both safe and effective. (Image: mapodile/E+/GettyImages)

Want to lose weight but can't seem to stay on track with your diet? If that sounds familiar, you might benefit from trying a weight-loss program — aka a membership-based plan that provides a more structured approach to weight loss.

You're likely familiar with many of these programs, from standbys like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig to newbies like Noom and Beachbody. But there are countless others out there, all promising near-magic amounts of weight loss and offering stunning before-and-after photos as proof. So, how do you know if they really work?

Know this: A beautiful website and some clever Instagram posts do not necessarily mean that a program is trustworthy or effective. Before you invest your time or money, here's how to select a program that will deliver the results you want.

1. Look for a program that promotes health above losing weight. Yes, you are there to drop some pounds, but your health should be your first priority. A good program promotes overall healthy habits, such as getting enough sleep and lowering stress levels, which in turn make it easier to lose weight. In fact, an October 2018 study published in the Journal of Molecular Biochemistry found that individuals in a stress-management program made healthier dietary decisions when their stress levels were lower.

2. Choose a plan that relies on a balanced diet, including all food groups. Excluding entire food groups leaves you susceptible to nutrient deficiencies. For example, nixing carbs could leave you lacking in fiber, which is essential for heart health, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

3. Go for a slow-and-steady approach. Except for those who are severely overweight, a healthy rate of weight loss is 1 to 2 pounds per week, according to the Mayo Clinic. This ensures that you're losing fat rather than water or muscle, and research has shown you're more likely to keep the weight off long-term using this approach. If a program promises that you'll drop much bigger numbers in a short timeframe, beware.

4. Avoid programs that don't include physical activity. You may lose weight without exercise, but you're much more likely to gain it back if you don't make physical activity a part of your lifestyle going forward.

5. It is backed by experts? Registered dietitians are the nutrition experts for a reason. They take the entire picture of health into consideration when counseling about weight loss. If the program has RDs or MDs on its board or expert panel, you're on the right path. If the only "experts" are paid celebrities? Probably better to steer clear.

6. Find a plan you can stick with. Some programs have very specific rules about portioning out food in special containers or ensuring you record all of your meals and snacks on an app. If that sounds like a nightmare to you, steer clear and find something more sustainable, that better fits into your lifestyle. Remember that a good weight-loss program is one that is dedicated to you after you've lost the weight, to ensure you are keeping it off, according to the National Institutes of Health.

7. Opt for a program that helps you lose and maintain. Not every program sets you up for long-term weight maintenance. And weight cycling, or going up and down in weight, may put you at increased risk for high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, eating disorders and depression, according to research published December 2017 in Journal of Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome.

The bottom line: It's easy to get sucked into the allure of before-and-after photos and stories of people who have supposedly lost an unbelievable amount of weight on a certain program. But remember what your mama told you: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

How to Get Started

So, you've chosen your dream weight-loss program, and you're starting your journey on Monday. That means you binge over the weekend, eating all the foods you won't ever have again, right? Wrong. Jumping into a plan cold turkey like that could set you up to fail.

Instead, take the following steps before you dive in:

  • Read through the entire program. Get to know which foods are recommended and which ones you should limit, so choosing the right ones becomes second-nature.
  • If your program involves cooking for yourself rather than pre-packaged meals, hit the grocery store to stock up on healthy options.
  • On a related note, take a moment to purge your pantry of unhealthy foods that might tempt you to fall off the wagon.
  • Plan out your week with time for new healthy habits like meal-prepping and exercise. Scheduling these things into your calendar will make them more likely to happen.
  • If you're not the only one in the house, get everyone else on board with your healthy lifestyle change. Everyone you live with has a stake in your success and can serve as a support system when the going gets tough.
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