Weight Loss Retreats: Just As (In)effective As Anything Else


Yesterday Health.com examined “fat camps for grown-ups” — aka weight loss spas and retreats. The conclusion: as with any diet, results are spotty.

Health.com’s Sarah Klein talked to Jill Ackerman, who lost 100 pounds over three visits to “weight loss spa retreat center” the Hilton Head Health Institute. Ackerman said she learned healthy behaviors at the Institute that she continues to practice, and that her experience was well worth the money — such retreats can cost between $2,000 and $7,000 a week. But Nicole McLaren, who paid $2,400 a week for a month-long stint at Hilton Head, says it was a waste. She tells Klein, “Everything was optional, so a lot of people just sat around and talked about losing weight. The only thing you had to stick to was [that] they portioned your food to about 1,200 calories a day.” And, “I think I lost eight pounds, but that’s only because they starve you. When I left, all I wanted to do was eat!”

All the experts Klein speaks with say the same thing, and it’s a familiar message: extreme weight loss is hard to sustain, and the programs that work teach lifestyle modifications that continue far beyond the retreat itself. Sports exercise and education researcher Jennifer Hester offers a critique we’ve heard applied to The Biggest Loser (which actually operates its own weight loss retreat in Utah): “some weight-loss camps promote rapid weight loss through very low calorie diets and/or a punishing exercise regimen. Both are unlikely to be sustained in the long-term and are not relevant for healthy weight maintenance.” Unfortunately, “healthy weight maintenance” — or just plain health — may not be synonymous with weight loss, and the retreats Klein profiles seem to be at least as much about dropping pounds as about learning healthy behaviors.

This may simply be part of their nature. After all, an intense residential program may actually be a pretty good way to drop a bunch of weight fast — especially with the added incentive of significant outlay of funds. But something you take time out of your normal life to do might not necessarily teach you how to make your normal life healthier. In fact, maybe weight loss retreats reveal a major problem with the entire diet industry. Dramatic weight loss is visible, socially valued, and can feel like a reinvention — all of which make it an easy sell. But improved health without huge weight loss — though more sustainable in the long term — isn’t measurable in pants sizes. And such health improvement may not be best achieved through big-bucks programs in the first place. So really, what Klein’s piece makes clear is that retreats are selling a product — major weight loss — that often has a pretty short shelf life. And for many people, it may not be worth the price tag.

Fat Camps For Grown-Ups: Do They Work? [Health.com, via CNN]

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