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    Feb. 11, 2016 -- About 1 in 4 Americans are trying to shed some serious pounds. But exploring the world of weight loss programs can be tricky.

    Digital and print ads bombard us with claims promising success and messages that sound too good to be true, leaving some doctors scratching their heads. So how do you find a healthy program that works?

    It’s tough to do, a new study in the journal Obesity says. But it’s not impossible.

    "It is hard for consumers and doctors to tell what is effective and reliable, especially when relying on information found only on the Internet," says Kimberly Gudzune, MD, MPH, who worked on the study and is a weight loss specialist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "Few community weight loss programs offer services that meet at least some of the key components of widely accepted weight loss guidelines."

    Program Reviews: Chewing Through the Fat

    Gudzune and her colleagues reviewed web sites for nearly 200 weight loss programs in the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia areas. They included national ones like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, independent operators, and those supervised by doctors or offered by weight-loss surgery centers. The researchers checked to see if the programs followed medical weight loss guidelines from the American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology, and The Obesity Society.

    They looked at five key areas: level of support, the diet plan, behavior strategies, exercise, and whether it recommended supplements that weren't FDA-approved for weight loss.

    Gudzune says only 9% of the programs met their requirements in the key areas. The study does not name the programs. "I think it speaks to the decades of lack of regulation in this industry. [Weight loss] companies are just doing whatever they feel like. This is the reason it's so hard to find a reliable program."

    "Getting information solely off Internet ads or TV commercials or from a spokesperson or the person who owns the company gives you a one-sided pitch, which is not that much dissimilar than a snake oil salesman back in the days of the covered wagons," says Marc Leavey, MD, a primary care specialist with Lutherville Personal Physicians in Maryland. "It didn't work then, and it doesn't work now, but it does make a huge amount of money for weight loss and diet business."

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