The weight loss industry mirage

They lure consumers with tantalizing promises of concrete results after a few weeks or even days of use, but according to studies, weight loss programs and natural products work little or not at all.

In Obesity Canada's latest guidelines, published for physicians and the general population, an entire chapter is dedicated to the commercial weight-loss industry. Marie-Philippe Morin, from the Faculty of Medicine and Research Centre of the Institut universitaire de cardiologie et de pneumologie de Québec, Marie-France Langlois, from the Université de Sherbrooke, and Yoni Freedhoff, from the University of Ottawa, have scoured the current scientific literature to draft these recommendations. Please note: these recommendations are designed for overweight and obese patients, who are more likely to consume the products or programs mentioned above.

The weight-loss and weight-maintenance industry is huge, expected to reach $278.95 billion by 2023. "When you're desperate, you don't always have an informed judgment about everything the industry has to offer," denotes Marie-Philippe Morin, who co-authored the guidelines.

Natural products... but not very effective

No over-the-counter natural weight-loss products in Canada (PGX, Garcinia cambogia, green tea extracts, chromium picolinate, chitosan, conjugated linoleic acid and glucomannan) have been proven effective. "The studies demonstrating their success are of low methodological quality and short-term," says Dr. Morin.

The first thing to remember is that obesity is a chronic disease, just like diabetes or hypertension. Online, as in the commercial ecosystem, many people or companies proclaim to be weight-loss specialists or claim to hold ultra-effective weight-loss products. "People need to be careful: there are no miracle solutions or miracle diets. You have to turn to health professionals who can tailor advice to the patient's specific problems," stresses Dr. Morin.

Uneven programs

When it comes to weight loss programs, some can deliver the expected results, while others don't. "You have to be very careful, especially when it comes to programs that offer very significant weight loss quickly, without much effort or follow-up," says the specialist. The watchword? If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Some programs that combine nutrition, exercise and support, such as Jenny Craig®, Nutrisystem®, Optifast® and WW®, may result in modest weight loss. "There are some good tools out there, but you have to be careful when it comes to goals and long-term weight loss," says Dr. Morin. Patients often regain the weight lost when they leave the program. "The number-one success factor in studies is adherence," she says. This means that people must continue the program they've started for as long as possible in order to maintain the results they've achieved.

Professional support: the key to success?

To succeed in losing weight - and maintaining the new weight indicated by the scale - overweight and obese patients should be able to benefit from support from professionals such as nutritionists or kinesiologists. Unfortunately, the healthcare system in its current form does not offer access to this range of professionals: there is often only the doctor, and he or she can give only limited support. "Doctors often feel powerless in terms of what they can offer patients, and since the patient is powerless too, he or she will tend to consume weight-loss products and programs," says Dr. Morin. For her and her colleagues, it's long-term management by a dedicated team, not weight-loss programs, that can make a real difference to the chronic illness of overweight and obese patients.