WASHINGTON -- Some of the biggest names in the weight loss business have pledged to give consumers looking to shed excess pounds better information about how much diet products and programs will cost, the risks involved and the benefits of even moderate weight loss.
A set of voluntary guidelines, released today a group of government, industry and health representatives, don't reach a consensus on one of the most pressing questions -- how many pounds consumers can expect to lose -- but they do urge the diet industry to disclose more information to clients.
"We are very happy that we have gotten this far," said Lynn McAfee of the Philadelphia-based Council on Size & Weight Discrimination, one member of the coalition called the Partnership for Healthy Weight Management. But "this is clearly a work in progress."
The Federal Trade Commission and other members of the group -- including consumer and health advocates as well as industry representatives -- worked on the guidelines for a year and said they hoped consumers would use the guidelines when choosing weight-loss programs. Americans spend about $33 billion a year in their efforts to shed pounds.
The guidelines suggest that companies alert consumers that "most people who lose weight are likely to find it difficult to keep the weight off." But the coalition has not reached agreement on how businesses can provide clients with an accurate measure of typical weight loss.
"We've been struggling with these issues, but we realize there's not a one-size-fits-all disclosure," said Warren Dennis, outside general counsel for the Jenny Craig program.
Slim Fast, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers and Novartis Nutrition Corp., which runs the Optifast plan, were among the coalition's industry participants.
Dennis said the results of weight-loss programs vary so much from individual to individual and are dependent on so many factors that determining their effectiveness is very difficult. It's even tougher to figure out how many people successfully maintain their weight loss after a few years, he said.
Consumer advocates disagree.
"We feel the companies have a good idea about how much their clients lose on average," said Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "This is not rocket science."
Dr. George Blackburn of the Center for the Study of Nutrition and Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston said many larger companies already conduct long-term studies -- two to five years -- on outcomes. But clients may not hear the big numbers they are hoping for, he warns.
"Unfortunately, they want magic outcomes," Blackburn said. "We can only give them ... reasonable, healthy, long-term weight loss."
The guidelines urge providers of weight-loss services or products, including physicians, nutritionists and commercial centers, to give clients a detailed description of program contents, goals and staff qualifications. They should provide an estimate of total costs, including mandatory food purchases or medical tests required by the program.
Industry leaders believe that following the guidelines will not amount to a significant change of practice for weight-loss companies, particularly since many of them already are under consent orders with the government that prevent them from making false claims about their products. By setting the standard, the coalition hopes smaller operations will follow suit.
The guidelines place heavy emphasis on giving consumers information about the health risks of obesity, trying to shift the focus away from dropping pounds solely for cosmetic reasons.
"People enter weight-loss programs because they want to lose a whole lot of weight to be a size 6 or 8. They don't want to hear that just losing 20 pounds has health benefits," said Tracy Fox, a registered dietitian with the American Dietetic Association's government affairs office.
The National Institutes of Health says about 55 percent of American adults are overweight or obese -- up from 43 percent in 1960. The extra weight can mean increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, gallbladder disease, arthritis, sleep and breathing problems and some types of cancer.
Advice for those considering losing weight:
-- Check with your doctor. Make sure your health status allows for a taking in fewer calories and increasing physical activity.
-- Follow a calorie-reduced but balanced diet that provides for losing as little as one or two pounds a week.
-- Make time in your day for some form of physical activity.
-- Consider the benefits of moderate weight loss. There's scientific evidence that losing five to 10 percent of your weight and keeping it off can benefit your health.
Recommendations for those who decide to choose a weight-loss product or plan:
-- If your doctor prescribes medication, ask about complications or side effects. Let the doctor know what medications you are taking or other conditions you have.
-- If your treatment includes periodic monitoring or counseling, make sure the location is easy to get to.
-- Some methods for losing weight have more risks than others. Ask for details about side effects, complications or risks of any products.
-- Where appropriate, ask about the credentials and training of the program staff.
-- Ask for an itemized price list for all costs of the plan you're considering, including membership fees, diagnostic tests, weekly visits, meal replacements or nutritional supplements.
Source: The Partnership for Healthy Weight Management.