When Suzan Varga hears people talk about The Biggest Loser, the UCI Health weight management educator finds herself frustrated by the misconception it conveyed.
Sure the long-running TV show helped obese people lose weight and win prizes until it ended in 2016, but most contestants gained their hundreds of pounds back after the show, she notes.
“They were locked in during the competition,” Varga says, about the show’s dietary and exercise regimens. “Then they were sent home to their former lifestyles and to families who hadn’t changed their own eating habits, and with no follow-up or support.”
That’s exactly how the UCI Health Weight Management Program helps patients, she says. “We provide long-term structure and accountability from a team of licensed, skilled professionals who have been doing it for a long time.”
What it takes to lose weight
Losing weight and keeping it off requires, quite simply, a change in lifestyle. Even people who undergo bariatric surgery will gain the pounds back if they don’t change their eating and exercise habits, as well as other underlying issues.
UCI Health’s Weight Management Program, which started more than 20 years ago, is designed for people with body mass indexes (BMIs) of 25 or higher as well as anyone who needs to lose from 30 to 350 pounds.
“We address the person as a whole, catering to each individual’s needs,” says Katie Rankell, director of the program. There are various levels depending on each person’s health and BMI.
“We have a medically supervised very low-calorie (about 600-800 calories) program that uses meal replacements, including shakes, cereals, soups and entrees, and a moderate program of 1,200 calories that includes fruits and vegetables as well,” Rankell says. “The goal is stay in what we call ‘in the box,’ with no outside food.”
Learning to build good habits
Participants also receive education about healthy living and physical activity in order to encourage them to build good habits.
“We want to help people learn about the value of physical activity and to gain lifelong problem-solving skills,” Rankell says. “We also help people learn to manage family events so that they can stay within the program.”
At any given time, about 150 people are in weight-loss portion of the program – or phase one – where the expected weight loss is 60-75 pounds for those on the very low calorie regimen and 35 to 40 pounds for those on the 1,200-calorie diet over the course of four to six months. Participation includes medical evaluations, weekly classes and weigh-ins, and outreach from weight-loss coaches.
How to keep the weight off
The hard part is keeping the weight off. The key is making a lifestyle change. Phase two is designed to help maintain the weight loss and solidify changes in eating habits and lifestyle. About 150 people are in this phase. Based on data from the National Weight Control Registry, the program recommends that patients stay in this phase of the program for 12 to 18 months.
“Many of our patients see the benefit and stay much longer,” Rankell says.
“One man who lost 225 pounds has been in the maintenance program for three years,” Varga says. “Some stay even longer. A lifetime of habits can’t be reversed in six months.”
Controlling one’s environment and changing old habits helps to maintain weight loss. Through classes and individual coaching, participants learn:
‘A completely new life’
“When I first started here 20 years ago, the average age of our participants was 55,” Varga says. “Now, with society’s growing obesity epidemic, the average age is 48. But we have many patients in their 20s and 30s, too.”
Some people who come to the program heard about it from friends, neighbors or coworkers who’ve successfully lost weight. Others may be referred by an orthopedic surgeon to lower their weight for better recovery from knee or hip replacements. Still others may be referred by their primary care physicians who are concerned that obesity is exacerbating other health conditions.
Ultimately, says Rankell, “The No. 1 reason people come to us is to improve their quality of life and to feel better. Some say they can barely make it up the stairs or they can’t get down on the ground to play with the grandkids. Others don’t want to buy two seats to fly somewhere.”
Not only are program graduates able to enjoy life more, Rankell says the program’s health benefits can’t be overstated.
“We’ve had people go off multiple medications – for diabetes, cholesterol and high blood pressure. They report improved sleep and mood, and more energy. One women went off three oral meds and two insulins she had been taking for her diabetes, and she was able to live a completely new life.”