Most fitness experts recognize that nutrition is a key component for weight loss and management. But there's more to a weight-loss program than combining nutrition with a club's existing exercise component. A successful program will require a change in the way that weight-loss services are commonly presented.

Instead of referring to it as a diet program, call the program a strategy for nutrition and health. Your staff could organize and run the program, but the involvement of a registered dietitian — an expert in food, nutrition and weight management — is critical. A comprehensive program also involves an exercise physiologist and a health educator/counselor who could speak weekly for a brief period of time or speak for one entire session. In addition, you can use the American Dietetic Association [www.eatright.org, (800) 366-1655] as a resource.

The Right Approach

With the focus clear and a team of experts in place, the club must next develop an approach for the program. Each person has unique calorie, carbohydrate, protein, fat and nutrient requirements based on his/her age, height, weight, gender, activity level and goals. A registered dietitian would be able to determine each participant's needs and assign the appropriate nutrition plan.

After assigning the plan, the program's team must work toward participant compliance. Weekly meetings seem to be the best option for helping people stick with the program. The meetings should be set for 90 minutes. One-hour meetings often become 40-minute meetings, as people come late and then start to lose focus with five or 10 minutes left.

I suggest optional weigh-ins at each weekly meeting. For some, the thought of having to get weighed each week is motivating — for others, intimidating. Therefore, participants should choose how they will measure their success other than scale weight (e.g., body composition, clothing size, stress, energy levels, etc.).

Progress Through Education

During the meetings, participants and experts can go over food logs, something that the participants should keep. Food logs demand accountability and teach.

The latter point is crucial. Education is the key to a successful program. Participants must receive the tools and life skills they will need to achieve long-term success. Don't hand them a menu to follow. Teach them about foods, portion control, variety, etc.

I believe the Exchange System — developed by the American Diabetes Association [www.diabetes.org, (800) 232-3472] — is still the best teaching tool for permanent change. You need to supplement the system with topics such as label reading, meal planning, shopping, meal preparation, eating on the run, dealing with social situations, and so on.

Length of Program

Most experts agree that permanent behavior change takes approximately six to eight weeks to occur, so logically, a weight-loss program should run for the same time period. Any shorter and you are leaving the participants with much work to be done on their own. Much longer and you may start dealing with the issues of cost and attrition rates.

This doesn't mean that you can't maintain a relationship with the participants after the six to eight weeks. Keep in touch with some sort of less labor-intensive follow-up component. For example, all participants can receive weekly emails with tips and encouragement.

The ideal program would provide counseling for each participant on an individualized basis, but this method is expensive and would require the full-time services of a dietitian. The concept of a class provides an affordable option in a supportive group environment.

Christine Karpinski, M.A., R.D., is a registered dietitian and exercise physiologist, and is the owner of Nutrition Edge (cakfit@aol.com). She also consults for Platoon Fitness outdoor fitness company (www.platoonfitness.com).

The Basics for a Weight-Loss Program

The best weight-loss program will:

CHANGE FOCUS — The program should shift from weight loss to the development of a healthy lifestyle.

USE THE EXPERTS — A multi-faceted team is required to make the program work.

PERSONALIZE — Each participant should get his or her own plan.

EDUCATE — The program should use the Exchange System and teach skills to the participants.

MOTIVATE — The program can keep people interested with weekly classes, measures of success, food logs, etc.