The idea of enrolling in a weight loss program that promises to help you lose hundreds of pounds is very appealing, and it should be. Who doesn’t like the idea of signing up for a program, following a few instructions, and in just a matter of weeks, losing all the weight you’ve ever wanted? If this sounds too good to be true, it’s because it is. The fact is weight loss programs nearly always yield short-term and often underwhelming results. While on the other hand, creating your own weight loss plan has been shown to produce significant and sustainable weight loss.
The draw of weight loss programs is so strong that Americans spend $33 billion annually on weight loss products. Unfortunately, most of this money is wasted, as commercial weight loss programs have not been shown to create significant, long-lasting weight loss. A systematic review that examined the efficacy of commercial weight-loss programs found that none of the eleven programs (Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, Medifast, Atkins, etc.) studied produced significant weight loss (>5% body weight loss) results over the course of a year when compared to a control group1. A few of the study programs produced significant weight loss results in the first few months of engaging in the program, but participants promptly gained back most of their weight back nearly as quickly as it came off.
As a behavioral health doctor and health coach at Massachusetts General Hospital, I’ve met hundreds of patients who were discouraged from trying weight loss program after weight loss program, with nothing to show for it. Not only did attempting to use weight loss programs to reach their weight loss goals leave them worse off financially, but it also made them wonder if they were ever going to be able to reach their weight loss goals. Now, several years removed from working with most of these patients, I can safely say that nearly all of them did reach and maintain their weight loss goals. They achieved their goals by ditching the pre-designed weight loss programs and by creating their own weight loss plan.
In fact, a study published in the Journal of Lifestyle Medicine details how my patients lost a significant amount of their body weight and had kept this weight off when they were weighed two years after initiating their own weight loss plan2. Furthermore, these patients lost 150% more weight than those who worked with their primary care physician on their weight loss goals.
This article will share with you the five reasons why weight loss programs don’t work and how you can create your own successful weight loss plan. These reasons weight loss programs don’t work are:
Reason # 1: It’s not your plan
Reason # 2: They aren’t personalized
Reason #3: They don’t help you establish new habits
Reason #4: They produce short-term results
Reason #5: You become reliant on their program and products
In addition to discovering why weight loss programs don’t work, I will also help you understand what you can do to create your own weight loss plan, much like my patients did, which will lead you to significant and sustainable weight loss results. But let’s begin by examining the flaws associated with following a weight loss program.
Reason # 1: It’s Not Your Plan
Here is a simple truth; no one likes to be told what to do. This truth crosses all ages, genders, and cultures. As humans, we want to make our own decisions, and when we call the shots, we are likely to follow-through on the plan. However, if someone else tells us what to do or gives us a plan to follow, the likelihood of its success plummets.
This notion is described well by Dr. William Glasser’s “Choice Theory.” This theory explains that every person only has the power to control their own decisions, and no one can control another person’s behaviors. Furthermore, when someone else tries to control our choices, our first reaction typically is to reject their assertions and regain control of our behavior. This power struggle is often felt by individuals enrolled in a weight loss program.
Weight loss programs, by definition, are about following someone else’s plan. They commonly require participants to follow a specific diet, pursue a particular exercise regimen, or eat pre-determined meals. Now, this can work in the short-term. However, as we know, humans tire quickly of being told what to do, which is why weight loss programs produce short-term results, lasting only a few months or less1.
Since we know that people don’t want to be told what they can or can’t eat or what type of exercise routine they need to follow, it’s clear that following a predesigned weight loss program is not a viable pathway for reaching your weight loss goal. We also know that weight loss programs are designed by using the “one size should fit most” approach, which is also an ineffective way to lose weight because it lacks personalization.
Reason # 2: They Aren’t Personalized
Weight loss programs are created for the masses. For this reason, they have to take a cookie-cutter approach to weight loss that attempts to help anyone generally looking to lose weight. The problem with this technique is that the less tailored a weight loss plan is to your needs, the less likely it is to be effective.
Over the past decade, I’ve worked with hundreds of patients and clients on weight loss, and I’ve yet to come across two people who have the same starting point. Each individual that I’ve worked with has brought their own set of lived experiences and weight loss knowledge base to the table. As a result, each of their weight loss plans has looked different.
Therefore, if I required that each person I work with adopt the same eating habits and implement the same exercise program, 50% would be bored, and 50% would be overwhelmed, and 100% would say, “To hell with this.” However, when people create their own weight loss plans, they can tailor their goals and habit changes to meet their personal needs. This approach will keep people engaged, motivated, and will lead to meaningful and lasting weight loss.
Not only does following a predesigned weight loss program lead to disengagement, but it also suppresses self-efficacy. Asking a person to follow along with a cookie-cutter weight loss program blindly doesn’t support knowledge acquisition or the establishment of new habits.
Reason #3: They Don’t Help You Establish New Habits
If I made you three meals a day and said, “only eat these meals for the next three months, and you’ll lose 20 lbs”, could you do it? Sure, you could! You might even invite me to start cooking for you right now. However, what happens when I stop cooking for you and tell you to go off on your own but make sure to keep the weight off? I’d say it’s only a matter of time before you gain the weight back because you haven’t established any new habits of your own. I’d also say that my request for you to keep the weight off is unfair. However, this is exactly what weight loss programs expect of you.
Personalized habit changes lead to sustainable weight loss success. Yes, these changes have to generate weight loss, but they also have to fit into your long-term plans. The only way of establishing this type of change is for you to decide what changes you are going to make, try them, see what works and what doesn’t, and then adjust your plan. Allowing a weight loss program to decide what changes you’ll make and, in some cases, taking over the habit change for you (like creating weight loss inducing meals) is a terrible way to try to enact sustainable habit change.
To develop habit changes that will lead to significant and durable weight loss results, you and only you must decide what habits to make and how to implement them. Taking this approach will help you establish healthy habits that you have bought into and have learned how to sustain on your own. By letting a weight loss program dictate what practices you need to change and how to make said changes, you will achieve only short-term results, which is the fourth reason why weight loss programs do not work.
Reason #4: They Produce Short-Term Results
Commercial weight-loss programs can certainly help you lose weight in the short-term. However, these weight loss programs haven’t been shown to produce significant long-term results1. Losing weight, only to gain it back in a few months, can lead to feelings of discouragement and can lead to increased health risks.
Nothing feels better than seeing instant results that are generated by following a weight loss program. Unfortunately, this initial delight is dwarfed by how you feel after the weight you had lost reappears just a few months later. Rebounding from this type of yo-yo weight loss cycle can take an emotional toll and cause people to give up on achieving their weight loss goals altogether. Furthermore, this loss, gain, try to lose again, cycle can have adverse effects on your health.
Weight loss programs that generate rapid but short-term weight loss results by calling for restrictive calorie limits can develop “weight cycling.” Weight cycling is when people lose and regain a significant amount of body weight in a short period of time. This cycle has been linked to health conditions such as cancer, heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and depression.
Short-term weight loss results that lead to follow-up weight gain aren’t good for your health or psyche. However, falling into this weight cycle trap is useful for weight loss programs as it helps them keep you engaged with their plan and products.
Reason #5: You Become Reliant On Their Program and Products
The weight loss industry is fiercely competitive, with commercial weight loss programs spending millions of dollars trying to attract customers to their plan and to use their products. Therefore, once you have engaged in their program, they want to retain your business. Teaching a person how to design their own weight loss plan and how to create sustainable habits is a very effective way to help them lose significant weight and keep it off. However, this approach is bad for business, as it doesn’t promote customer retainment.
Think about it, if you signed up for a weight loss program, they taught you how to lose weight on your own, and you kept it off, why would you keep paying to be a part of their program or continue to buy their products? You wouldn’t. The only way to keep you engaged as a paying customer is to make you reliant on their products and plan by doing the hard work for you, rather than teaching you how to do it for yourself. For this reason, most commercial weight loss programs provide you with the food you should eat and/or create a weight loss plan for you to follow.
As famously written by the band Cheap Trick, these weight loss programs are essentially telling you, “I need you to need me.” But if you want to have success losing significant weight over the long-term, you are better off not spending your money on a commercial weight loss program and instead take the time to invest in yourself by creating your own weight loss plan.
How To Create Your Own Weight Loss Plan
Weight loss programs do not lead to significant and sustainable results for many reasons. The most prominent reasons being; they don’t solicit your input, they use a “one size fits most” approach, they don’t support the establishment of new habits, they are designed to yield short-term results, and they make you reliant on their program/products. So if a weight loss program isn’t the answer to reaching your weight loss goals, where should you look? Simply put, in the mirror.
Designing your own weight loss plan has been shown to produce significant and long-lasting results2. To create a weight loss plan that will help you achieve your weight loss goals, I recommend that you follow these five proven steps:
- Conduct a self-assessment of your current wellness habits (this helps you understand what habit changes you can make that will lead to weight loss).
- Identify your personal values and how they are connected to your desire to lose weight (this helps you stay motivated to lose weight).
- Create your “ideal wellness vision” (this helps you envision what you and your life will be like when you reach your goals and primes your brain for success).
- Conduct a gap analysis of your current habits (this will help you decide which habit changes you should work on first).
- Creating and launch your weight loss plan by formulating goals and an assessment strategy (this will help you track your progress and stay accountable to your plan).
If you are ready to create your own weight loss plan and could use a few resources to help you get started, please visit www.weightlostacademy.com, where you will find my free article: 5 Unparalleled Steps To Sustainable Weight Loss, a self-assessment tool, and a link to my book: Weight Lost: 5 Steps to Achieving Your Ideal Weight and Gaining the Life You’ve Always Wanted.
- Gudzune, K. A., Doshi, R. S., Mehta, A. K., Chaudhry, Z. W., Jacobs, D. K., Vakil, R. M., … & Clark, J. M. (2015). Efficacy of commercial weight-loss programs: an updated systematic review. Annals of internal medicine, 162(7), 501-512.
- Sherman, R. P., Petersen, R., Guarino, A. J., & Crocker, J. B. (2019). Primary Care–Based Health Coaching Intervention for Weight Loss in Overweight/Obese Adults: A 2-Year Experience. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 13(4), 405-413.