Junkfood Science: Who’s the biggest loser: A top commercial diet program or consumers?

February 15, 2007

Who’s the biggest loser: A top commercial diet program or consumers?

A study on one of the largest commercial weight-loss programs was just published in the International Journal of Obesity but has been ignored by the press. Understandably, a major media campaign and flurry of press releases have not trumpeted its findings.

Researchers at four major research centers across the country followed 60,164 adults enrolled in the Jenny Craig Platinum program in 2001-2002 to evaluate how long people were able to stick with this program and how much weight they lost.

They found that a quarter dropped out the first month, 42% after 3 months, 22% after 6 months, and only 6.6% were able to stick with the program for a year.

Unlike Kirstie Alley, the weight loss among people not being paid as celebrity spokespersons was considerably less notable. For a 200 pound woman able to keep with the program an entire year, according to this study, she would have lost half a pound a week....except fewer than 7 out of 100 were able to hang in for a full year. Hardly winning endorsement for the success and palatability of the program.

The authors put the best take on the findings they could, concluding:

Weight loss was greater among clients who were retained in the program longer. The findings from this study suggest that a commercial weight loss program can be an effective weight loss tool for individuals who remain active in the program.

This study had been published online eight months earlier but without noting the conflicts of interest of the authors:

FL Greenway, BJ Rolls, and SN Blair [at the Cooper Institute, Dallas, Texas when this study was conducted] are current members of the Jenny Craig Medical Advisory Board. CL Rock is a former member of the Board.

The authors did not investigate why most people dropped out of the program. But reviews are surprisingly consistent in noting that the food and price are primary drawbacks for most people. Forbes investigated the costs of the top ten diet commercial plans and found that Jenny Craig was the most expensive of all of them, at about $137.65/week — well over the $54.44 the average American spends on food each week. Phase One of the program requires participants to purchase a set number of meals which can cost up to $400. Forbes emphasized:

Much of that money is wasted. Indeed, a government review found that two-thirds of American dieters regained all the weight they had lost within a year, and 97% had gained it all back within five years.

An e-opinion reviewer wrote:

I had a lot of questions, like "Why would I do this rather than just buy diet dinners at the grocery store?" I was told I am paying for their support, their weigh-ins (yes she told me that I was paying to have someone stand next to me as I climbed on a scale and write down the number!) and for the accountability that goes along with the program.

The sales manager mentions this diet is for people who don't or can't think on their own. An independent thinker might feel limited by the diet. I asked how it teaches us to eat right for the rest of our lives and she said that they will train you for that as they wean you off of their food (like an addiction!) and you start to think on your own again.

Another review at a weight loss guide said:

The Jenny Craig program is EXPENSIVE! All the meals must come from Jenny Craig, and the food costs can really mount up. What is disturbing is that Jenny Craig do not list their prices anywhere - they require you to ring up first - which involves an aggressive sales pitch. Jenny Craig require you to sign a contract - and once you have joined the initial deal (which typically lasts 2-3 months), you must then sign up for either Gold or Platinum membership (at $199 and $299). What do you get for your membership? Someone to weigh you each week, and quite frankly to increase sales for more products (everything from pedometers to cookbooks).

Jenny Craig was among the commercial diet companies that the FTC charged (as discussed here) with deceptive advertising for making unsubstantiated weight-loss and weight-loss maintenance claims; for using consumer testimonials without substantiation; and for deceptive pricing, weight-loss rate or safety-related claims. Among the charges the FTC specifically made against Jenny Craig was that it “falsely represented that the advertised prices were the only costs associated with the programs....also deceptively failed to adequately disclose additional mandatory expenses.” The FTC added allegations that “Jenny Craig represented without adequate supporting evidence that nine out of 10 customers would recommend the Jenny Craig program to a friend, and represented that it had surveys backing up that claim, when it did not.” They were ordered to have scientific data to back up any future about weight loss and maintenance and to disclose in their advertising or to any consumers who inquire by phone all fees and costs of the additional products or services in the programs. There is no evidence that the FTC action has resulted in any changes.

According to the FTC’s final settlement against Jenny Craig: “When the Commission issues a consent order on a final basis, it carries the force of law with respect to future actions. Each violation of such an order may result in a civil penalty of $11,000.”

The FTC brochure, “Skinny on Dieting,” released at the time of the Jenny Craig action, warning consumers to be skeptical of weight loss programs and offering advice on how to decipher spin from facts is no longer available online from the FTC. The book had also warned consumers that “only about 5 percent of the 50 million Americans who go on diets in a given year will keep off any weight they lose.”

Jenny Craig International is one of the corporate sponsors of the lobby group, American Obesity Association, along with Weight Watchers International, Inc., Slim Fast Foods Company, pharmaceutical companies and Ethicon Endo-Surgery, Inc (a bariatric surgical supplier). As discussed here, these organizations, along with insurers and major employers, are also part of the National Business Group on Health. These groups lobbied to get obesity declared a “disease,” pushed for weight loss products to be tax-deductible (in other words, subsidized by taxpayer dollars) and market the “costs of obesity.” They continue to work for their products to be covered by insurance companies and employer “wellness” programs. Growing numbers of insurers and employers are including Jenny Craig in their programs to get fat employees “healthy.” For example, CIGNA Health Care includes Jenny Craig in their “Healthy Rewards” program, offering premium discounts to people who participate. It’s not only part of the health solutions offered by Blue Cross Blue Shield plans, but it is one of the diets required to obtain coverage for bariatric surgeries.

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

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