This little gem showed up in my inbox this weekend: Cost-Effective Weight Loss Programs Help Shed Pounds And Keep Them Off.
The article reports on a study that examined a low-cost weight loss program, Taking Pounds Off Sensibly (TOPS), following 75,000 participants for seven years. The program cost about $92 a year.
Within their first year at TOPS, 50% of participants reached clinically significant weight loss. “Clinically significant weight loss” is defined as a mere 5% loss of body weight. It’s significant because it’s been found that even just a 5% weight loss results in vast improvements in “weight-related” conditions. We’ll talk more about this later. After seven years, 62% of those who lost weight maintained that weight loss. The cost of attending TOPS for seven years was roughly $644.
Well stop the presses, we’ve finally found a cure for obesity! It’s the miracle weight loss cure we’ve all been waiting for! Or so the title of the article would have us believe.
But let’s break it down, shall we? Of 75,000 people, 37,500 (50%) of them were able to lose 5% of their body weight. For a 200 pound person, that equates to 10 pounds, 15 pounds for a 300 pound person, etc. After seven years, 23,250 (62% of 37,500) managed to keep off that 5%. That amounts to 31% of total participants. So roughly one third of these folks were able to lose 10 to 15 pounds (slightly more for people who weighed more than 300 lb) for the mere price of $644. Having done my time in the weight loss industry – both as a customer and an employee – I know that most people don’t join these kinds of groups to lose just 5% of their starting body weight.
You know, I can give myself food poisoning and lose 10 pounds for free. I’ve done it before (by accident, obviously). I might not keep that weight off, but at least I’ll keep $644 in my pocket.
Meanwhile, 69% of the participants either could not lose any weight at all or regained the weight they lost. My guess is that they also spent $92 a year to find that out. Great. Did they get their money back, or were they just blamed for their lack of willpower? All 51,750 of them.
Now let’s talk about this clinically significant weight loss. The health authorities (the CDC, the NHLBI) have lightened up on the previously heralded 10% weight loss (likely having realized that even that is unattainable long term for most people) and now encourage a mere 5% weight loss. I won’t argue that some studies back this up – they do. But a 10 or 15 or even 20 pound weight loss for a 200, 300 or 400 pound person still leaves them fat. If the conditions that are “weight-related” are improved but the person remains fat, what does that say? It says that it might not be the weight loss at all that caused the improvements.
What do people who try to lose weight start out doing? They eat better and exercise. Gee, could it be the behavior changes and not the weight loss that caused the health improvements? We’ve already seen numerous studies that show that healthy behaviors make healthy people regardless of weight. Yet weight loss, a possible by-product of behavior changes, is touted as the supposed cure. Which would be great except it doesn’t seem to work for most people.
We’re smarter than this. This study does nothing but support the idea that we can’t turn fat people into thin ones, which is what people who buy into weight loss are being sold. Who plans to pay $644 to stay almost the same weight when you can do that for free? You don’t need to pay that much to make changes in your eating and exercise habits and become healthier (but not necessarily thinner), I promise you. You probably don’t need to pay anything at all.
It’s just a shame that the remaining 69% of the participants weren’t studied for the improvements they might have made in their health despite a lack of weight loss. Although my guess is that if they didn’t lose weight, they probably got discouraged and gave up any positive changes much quicker than those who did lose weight. And that, my friends, is the problem with a health intervention that focuses on weight loss.
Thanks but no thanks. A failure rate that high won’t see me giving away that kind of money. How about you?