The commercials for Aspen Clinic include claims from customers and impressive before and after pictures, promoting successful personal weight loss stories.
The Louisiana company has nine clinics across the southern part of the state, but unlike the many weight loss centers and clinics analyzed by local experts for Eyewitness News in Weight Loss Wednesday, Aspen Clinic was the first to turn down requests to have its doctors, clients or director go on camera to discuss the program.
A WWL producer went to a clinic to get informational materials, but said the doors were locked with a sign that read 'by appointment only.' So the experts interviewed by WWL had to rely on the Aspen Clinic web site and studies in respected science journals for insight into how the program works.
"There's some positive things about Aspen Clinic," said Melinda Sothern, a professor of public health at the LSU Health Sciences Center. "They have a registered dietitian on board, which is wonderful."
Sothern has been recognized nationally for her weight loss studies and said that, along with sound nutritional advice, Aspen also has another important component.
"They promote lifestyle change and they have behavioral classes where they teach their clients things like how to self-monitor, how to keep track of what they eat, and how to recognize being hungry versus craving," said Sothern.
She said the evidence is clear that behavior modification is very important in any program to get the most weight off for the longest amount of time.
One example is self-monitoring, or keeping track of what you eat, when you eat it, and how it makes you feel. Another is setting simple short-term goals, like committing to walk the dog after work three times per week. A third is not having foods around you or in the house that trigger you to binge eat. Sothern said you also need to ask if the Aspen Clinic promotes counseling, and which kind is offered.
"One-on-one counseling is not as effective as group sessions in the scientific literature," said Sothern. "That's because of peer modeling. When you get in a group of other overweight people with similar problems and you talk about the challenges that you had that week, you get the support of them, you get empathy and it feeds on each other."
Another crucial part of weight loss is exercise, and Aspen recommends physical activity, starting slowly for beginners, which is something experts say is wise.
But there is one part of the Aspen Clinic that doctors say you should be cautious about. It uses prescription drugs, called anorectics, as a weight loss aid.
"If it takes certain drugs to jump-start that individual to get them to lose the weight, then that's okay as long as it's supervised," said Kim Edward Leblanc, head of family and sports medicine at LSU Health Sciences Center.
Leblanc, an expert in exercise physiology and supplements, said you should talk to your own physician before taking these anorectics or appetite suppressant drugs because they act in a similar fashion to amphetamines.
He added that patients should make sure that any clinics' doctor who dispenses these drugs is an expert in this practice, and monitors the patient closely.
"Though some weight loss clinics have individuals who are board certified in, say, obstetrics and gynecology or board certified in pathology or radiology, are those the doctors you want monitoring your drug therapy for weight loss?" Leblanc asked.
The Aspen Clinic owner did respond to this one issue, by saying that several of his doctors are bariatric specialists.
Doctors say specialists in family medicine, internal medicine or endocrinology are trained in how weight loss medications can help or cause problems in patients.
However, Leblanc says some of these drugs have highly addictive potential and should never be used for more than 12 weeks. The warning is even stronger for people with heart or cardiovascular disease, thyroid, respiratory or anxiety problems and certain mental or brain chemical imbalances.
Doctors say there are only three FDA-approved medications for weight loss, Meridia, Alli and Phentermine, but among the many others, Phentermine is the only one listed on the Aspen Clinic web site.
"The Phentermine agent alone is approved, however it is the one of those three that has the highest risk for addiction and also cardiovascular risk," said Sothern.
Soon, in an effort to eliminate potential abuse, the Louisiana Board of Medical Examiners will no longer allow Aspen Clinic or any other medical weight loss clinics to sell and dispense these controlled drugs. The clinics will be able to write a prescription for those drugs, but you'll have to get them at a pharmacy.