13 January 2009

Do diet clubs measure up?

Are you among the 150 000 South Africans who use diet clubs to help lose weight?


Are you among the more than 150 000 South Africans who use diet clubs to help you lose weight? Our diet experts see what the various clubs have to offer.

You want to lose weight - your doctor has warned that you need to, or perhaps your mirror tells you you're not looking that good in your swimsuit.

What do you do? Mostly we do one of two things: go the do-it yourself route, possibly buying diet pills, slimming drinks and/or appetite suppressants - or join a diet club.

South Africa's three biggest diet clubs - Weight Watchers, Weigh Less and SureSlim - assure you they will see to it you lose weight. And judging by their hundreds of thousands of members these aren't empty promises.

Besides these three, there are programmes (like Virgin Active Life Care, associated with the Virgin Active gym chain) in which exercise is the main focus complemented by special attention to diet. Shapes and Curves - both exclusively for women - are two more examples.

On the surface it seems the clubs' recipe - support groups, meal plans and definite goals for weight loss - is one that works. Health24's sister magazine, YOU Pulse, set out to find out just how good they are, and which are best. We enlisted DietDoc, Dr Ingrid van Heerden, along with dieticians Irene Labuschagne and Celeste Naudé of the Nutrition Information Centre of the University of Stellenbosch (Nicus).

The clubs we looked at were those names above; and the aspects we looked at included the basic principles, the nature of the support offered, costs, and whether special groups were accommodated. These are the highlights of that process:

The basic principles

  • Weight Watchers is non-prescriptive and the food isn't weighed. Instead, it's based on a daily points system aimed at changing your mindset so you'll start buying healthier food. The use of diet supplements and pills is discouraged.
  • Weigh-Less aims to help members follow a healthy eating plan and make wise food choices. It is based on a certain number of portions a day, and weighing of food is encouraged initially to teach members what size portions should be.
  • SureSlim is based on three high-protein, low-fat meals a day, with five hours of fasting inbetween.
  • Virgin Active Life Care combines exercise with eating plans based on personal needs and goals. It encourages you to exercise for 30 minutes a day, and gives you a personalised eating plan
  • The Shapes for Women programme provides two eating plans: a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet for people who're carbohydrate-sensitive; or one with limited kilojoules. It has a strong focus on exercise.
  • The Curves plan is based on studies conducted at Baylor University in the US; and the focus is on increasing your metabolic rate.

  • How are members supported?

  • Weight Watchers, Weigh-Less and SureSlim all offer weekly weighing sessions and support groups.
  • Virgin Active Life Care offers a weekly telephone call from a dietician and online support; and biokineticists are available. In addition, there are self-monitoring devices at the gyms.
  • Shapes and Curves offers weekly weighing sessions. At Curves, measurements are taken every three weeks

  • How much does the programme cost?*

    1. Weight Watchers

    For eight weeks: R350. For 12 weeks: R450 plus R35 for the weekly weigh-in. As soon as you reach your target weight you become a lifelong member.

    Contacts: 0861-113-225;;

    2. Weigh-Less

    Joining fee: R100. Monthly fee: R160. Several special contracts available.

    Contacts: 0861-100-551;;

    3. SureSlim

    The two-month course costs R1 350. Blood tests cost between R525 and R744,80.

    Contacts: 021-797-6003;;

    4. Virgin Active Life Care

    It's free for Virgin Active gym members and some members of certain medical aids get a discount. Everyone else can buy the programme for R295.

    Contacts: 0860-263-947;;

    5. Shapes for Women

    Joining fee: R300 to R460. Monthly fee: R220 or R300 depending on the gym. The eating plan is included in these costs.

    Contacts: 011-791-1838;;

    6. Curves

    Joining fee: R649 or R324 depending on the option. Monthly fee: R249 to R299. Curves supplements cost about R200 a month.

    Contacts: 0800-287-837;

    Are there tailored weight-loss programmes for special groups such as children or diabetics?

    1. Weight Watchers

    Yes. Children older than 10 are welcome.

    2. Weigh-Less

    Yes. Children older than nine are welcome.

    3. SureSlim

    Yes. The eating plan is based on your blood test results, medical history and special needs.

    4. Virgin Active Life Care

    Yes. Special plans are available for heart patients, diabetics, people with high blood pressure or sports injuries, and others.

    5. Shapes for Women

    Yes. You can choose between plans designed for carbohydrate-sensitive or kilojoule-sensitive people. Eating plans can also be adapted to suit children.

    6. Curves

    No, but diets are adapted free of charge for people with special needs. Children need permission from their doctor.

    What the diet experts say

    Do weight-loss programmes deliver what they promise?

    Weight Watchers and Weigh-Less

    The approach used by Weight Watchers and Weigh-Less has a solid scientific basis. They know if you want to lose weight you need to reduce your energy intake and increase your energy output - and you need to lose weight slowly. They include all food groups in their diet plans and don't offer instant solutions or fad diets.

    Their diet plans are balanced and don't require supplements or special products. Weigh-Less puts special emphasis on the promotion of good food choices and healthy eating patterns. With Weight Watchers it's possible to manipulate the points system: you can choose foods that aren't so healthy and still arrive at the recommended number of points - but that would be to your own detriment.

    Dieticians' conclusion: These two programmes can definitely be recommended.

    3. SureSlim

    This club promises extremely rapid weight loss within a very short time. Its claim - that its Quick Loss Eating Plan is designed to increase the secretion of human growth hormone (HGH) and serotonin while suppressing the overproduction of insulin - may be based on solid scientific research but is used out of context.

    SureSlim maintains that not eating during the five hours between meals stimulates the production of HGH and serotonin and suppresses the production of insulin. But Professor Tessa van der Merwe, specialist in weight loss at the University of the Free State and one of South Africa's leading experts in the field, says, ''Your diet cannot influence the secretion of growth hormone or its relationship with insulin.''

    Many people who follow the SureSlim diet complain that they get headaches and feel shaky as a result. The Quick Loss Eating Plan contains too much protein and not enough carbohydrates, dietary fibre and calcium to be regarded as balanced. The energy content of this diet is so low people start having food cravings and feel weak.

    The comprehensive - and expensive - blood tests required before clients may start with SureSlim are also unnecessary.

    This eating plan is regarded as a ketogenic diet and like the Atkins diet is unbalanced and unhealthy. In the case of such a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet an undesirable and unhealthy reaction takes place. Ketones (waste products formed when proteins are broken down) are used as the primary source of energy because you're not eating nearly enough carbohydrates.

    This is dangerous for the body, especially in the long run. Side-effects that may appear include severe exhaustion, insomnia, dehydration, constipation, gout, bad breath, shakiness, dizziness and vitamin and mineral deficiencies, especially of the B vitamins, calcium, folate and magnesium. Initially you do lose weight quickly but that's mainly because of dehydration and fluid loss. If you eat no or very little carbohydrate the moisture stored in the cells is lost.

    Dieticians' conclusion It's difficult to stick to a high-protein (ketogenic) diet for long and most people regain much of the weight they lost as soon as they return to their normal eating pattern.

    4. Virgin Active Life Care

    This eating plan is based on solid scientific principles and takes your sex, age, weight, length, level of activity and food choices into account. The eating plans, worked out by dieticians from the Sports Science Institute of SA and other organisations, are healthy and balanced.

    The Virgin Active Life Care programme uses a holistic approach and gives people the opportunity to improve their lifestyle and lose weight in a safe and healthy way.

    Dieticians' conclusion This programme can definitely be recommended.

    5. Shapes for Women

    This fitness group offers a choice of two eating plans - one for women who're ''carbohydrate-sensitive'' and another for women who're ''kilojoule-sensitive''. These labels are exclusively used by Shapes for Women and don't have a scientific base. The first eating plan, for women who're ''carbohydrate-sensitive'', contains very few carbohydrates - just 20g a day during the first week. A diet consisting of less than 100g of carbohydrates a day is regarded as a ketogenic diet.

    In the short term people lose weight quickly on this high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet but it's very difficult to keep up and you tend to gain weight as soon as you return to a normal eating pattern. The initial weight loss of 2-3 kg is caused by loss of fluids.

    Both eating plans contain more protein than is usually recommended for low-kilojoule diets. Unfortunately the fat content is also high because the eating plans contain few carbohydrates but lots of protein. Ketogenic diets can be dangerous for diabetics and people with kidney problems and are definitely not recommended for children and pregnant women.

    Research has shown people on this plan do lose more weight during the first six months (mainly because of fluid loss) but when their weight loss after 12 months was compared with that of people on a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet with high fibre and limited kilojoules, it became clear the second group managed to wipe out their backlog within six months.

    A low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet is good for one's health while a ketogenic diet has many disadvantages. There's also no proof a diet can permanently change one's metabolism.

    Dieticians' conclusion These eating plans are ketogenic and unbalanced. They may cause quick weight loss but will soon lead to weight gain.

    However Shapes for Women gets its members to exercise, increase their fitness levels and speed up their metabolism through muscle exercises which is a definite plus.

    6. Curves

    This American company is currently expanding throughout South Africa. Its eating plans - not available at the time of writing - are based on the results of studies conducted by sports scientists at Baylor University in the US. The diets are mainly low-kilojoule and high-protein - in other words, ketogenic.

    The programme recommends the use of supplements such as the Curves Glucose Control Formula. Because of a lack of solid scientific research proving they work, the effectiveness of these supplements is doubtful.

    Dieticians' conclusion
    We can't recommend the use of a ketogenic eating plan and the use of supplements. However it's a good thing Curves encourages and gives women the opportunity to become fit since fitness and muscle exercises help one lose weight.

    Something to chew over
    Healthy weight loss may require time and perseverance but the chances the loss will be permanent are much greater than if you were to follow an ''instant'' programme. Exercise combined with a healthy eating plan remains your best solution.

    * Prices correct at end-2007.

    (YOU Pulse; Summer, December 2007, updated January 2009)


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