Choosing the best weight loss camp for your teenager, young adult or college student is one of those decisions that really, really counts.
When you know in your heart your child’s losing the battle with weight — and you’ve tried everyone’s well-meaning suggestions with no success — finding the right immersive program can feel impossible.
So before we explain how to evaluate the best weight-loss camps, please know this:
It is entirely possible for your child to reach and stay at a healthy weight, even if nothing has worked so far.
We know more today about the science of weight loss and weight management than ever before — and it sheds new light on why so many “helpful” suggestions just don’t work.
The right program will give your child the evidence-based know-how, skills and confidence to take charge of their own health, weight and happiness.
Trust yourself. You’re on the right path to free your child from the lifelong health risks and frustration that early weight gain so often inflicts.
How to Use This Guide
This guide is divided into three sections which address the most important aspects of choosing a weight loss camp for your teen or young adult daughter or son:
- Scientific and clinical weight loss expertise
- The camp experience, including program design
- After-camp support
Each section explains what to look for, why it matters, and arms you with specific questions to help get the information you need to make the decision that’s best for your family.
Scientific & Clinical Weight Loss Expertise
1. Is their program designed, led and delivered by specialists in teen and young adult weight loss?
Each weight loss camp’s leadership and program development team should have strong professional credentials in child, adolescent, teen and young adult weight loss, weight management and child development — above and beyond their practical experience in weight loss camp settings or general healthcare positions.
Typically, the best weight loss programs are designed and led by a clinical director and professional staff of weight loss experts, including psychologists, therapists, licensed professional counselors, registered dietitians, nutritionists, certified and degreed fitness professionals and other specialties as needed.
These key individuals should participate in the actual hands-on delivery of the program during each session of camp. They should also provide close, eyes-on supervision of seasonal staff and college students serving as camp recreation counselors.
Each weight loss camp’s clinical director and professional staff should be physically present and actively involved throughout each term of camp.
The camp should also maintain a permanent staff of experienced professional clinicians who specialize in adolescent, teen and young adult weight loss and child development. They should continually update the camp’s curriculum to reflect the latest peer-reviewed science of weight management. Realistically, the only way to stay current is to maintain a permanent year-round staff of clinical weight loss professionals.
Program leaders and clinical staff should be on-site and involved throughout camp — training staff, connecting with parents and campers, and supporting the work of the camp’s behavior coaches and counselors.
Finally, the permanent staff should be available year-round to parents and campers for support as new challenges or concerns arise.
- What are your camp leadership’s current relationships with academic and scientific researchers?
- Who actually developed the program? Can I talk to them? How often do they visit camp when it’s in session?
- Are your program leaders viewed by peers, media and others as experts within this field?
- Who are the members of your year-round professional staff & what are their credentials?
- When and how will campers interact with licensed clinical staff?
- Have the camp’s director or senior staff published recent books or clinical research?
- Are your program leaders licensed healthcare professionals (ex: therapists, counselors and psychologists, dietitians and nutritionists, nurse-practitioners)
- Does their state-required continuing education emphasize weight loss, behavior change, and child development?
For example, Empowered Wellness founder and clinical director Eliza Kingsford has collaborated with leading academic and clinical weight loss researchers, published a well-regarded guide weight loss, and appeared on Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil and other TV shows, and has been a frequently-quoted source for the Los Angeles Times and other well-regarded media.
2. Is the program up-to-date?
The science of weight management and weight loss is evolving very rapidly. New research emerges constantly that improves our understanding of how to help teens and young adults reach and maintain their best weight – where they’re healthiest and happiest.
To keep costs down, some camps temporarily contract with an outside expert to develop their program.
They don’t want to pay to bring that expert back in every year to refresh and update the program — so the original program continues to run in “autopilot” mode. As a result, campers get increasingly outdated information and guidance, and can’t benefit from each year’s advances in the science of successful weight loss.
If the science behind programs is out of date, a new climbing wall in the camp’s recently-improved gym won’t change children’s health outcomes or improve their daily lifestyle habits when they return home.
Running a camp on autopilot is especially risky in weight loss. We know now that weight loss practices and beliefs that were very common just a few years ago actually harmed people. For example, avoiding dietary fat often leads to MORE weight gain, not less; and bootcamp-style guilting of teens into pushing beyond their limits may win the push-up battle but lose the war for fragile self-confidence and sustainable health improvements.
Make sure your camp’s program is updated every year to reflect the latest research on successful healthy behavior change, weight gain and weight loss, and physical activity and fitness specifically for children and adolescents, teens and young adults.
- Does your camp require daily weigh-ins or chart/discuss weight loss with campers?
- What are some examples of clinical updates to the program this year?
- What new developments in the science of weight loss are most important for your program?
For example, emphasizing daily weigh-ins and discussing pounds lost quickly leads to extremely unhealthy and counter-productive behaviors, especially for teens and young adults.
At Empowered Wellness, we weigh our campers only twice – on the first day of camp, and on the last day of camp. We do have scales in several locations, and weigh-ins at other times are up to the individual camper. Every camper is unique, and this allows each camper to do what works best for them.
Best of all: they all still make steady progress towards their best weight – the weight that they’re happiest and healthiest at. Mission accomplished!
The Camp Experience
3. Does the camp take a balanced approach to teen and young adult weight loss?
“Fat camp”-style weight loss camps and teen-oriented boot camps often achieve short-term weight loss by restricting food (either total amount or specific food groups) while putting kids through a very aggressive fitness program that won’t be available to them back home.
The campers are hungry all the time (of course!) – and still haven’t learned the cognitive-behavioral skills to help them overcome individual success barriers, stay on track, and remain active back home.
It’s important that the camp you select provide realistic healthy lifestyle, nutrition and fitness coaching to your child. For example, telling kids that even diet sodas are off limits, and demonizing favorites like pizza and burgers, will drive many campers to simply throw up their hands in despair.
In reality, of course, most of us want to be able to eat dessert or some chips and salsa sometimes. No one — teen or adult — will stick to a routine that makes them miserable, no matter how theoretically healthy it is.
The nutrition and fitness program should model a sensible, sustainable and most of all enjoyable approach to food and physical activity. Extreme approaches — and activities that campers often detest, like endless walking on a track or being required to participate in team sports or eat foods they don’t enjoy — will certainly not last once camp ends.
Worst of all, these approaches often introduce new health and emotional problems on top of concerns about weight.
- How do you help campers find physical activity they enjoy?
- How many calories do you serve? What if campers are still hungry?
- What foods are off-limits?
- What are some examples of cognitive-behavior weight loss strategies and life skills you teach?
- Is cognitive-behavioral coaching including in tuition or extra?
- Do you announce individual camper weights or publicly compare groups of campers in terms of total pounds lost?
- How do you measure camper success?
For example, at Empowered Wellness we never measure success in pounds lost — yet our campers lose an average of four pounds/week.
How do we do it, since we neither encourage nor allow food restriction or extreme exercise?
We focus on arming campers with the latest know-how and teach them new life skills and strategies to consistently make smart choices about food, activity, even under stress or when dealing with difficult or challenging situations.
We also give them practical and fun experiences like learning how to make healthier, still-delicious, versions of their favorite foods.
Because our program is built around cognitive-behavior skills, we don’t treat them as an “optional extra” — because the entire history of weight loss in the 20th century tells us that simply telling people to “eat less, move more” and teaching them about calories, grams, and the government’s exercise recommendations doesn’t help anyone at any age lose weight and keep it off!
4. Is the weight loss camp’s location well-chosen?
Rural or more remote camps can be a lot of fun, but they’re often not the best location for campers who want to stop the weight spiral for good.
In the real world — the one every single camper returns to — teens and young adults will have to negotiate successful food choices in a variety of settings, from their high school cafeteria to college residence halls, grocery stores, fast food restaurants and fancy restaurants, and other people’s homes.
A perfectly-controlled environment that predetermines virtually every bite campers eat doesn’t allow them to practice new healthy habits skills in realistic settings – and it isn’t really preparing them to succeed after camp ends.
Plus, campers want to have fun!
If they love quiet, remote areas, a more rural camp may be a great choice.
If not, remember that it’s very important, especially for teens, to be able to return to school after summer vacation full of stories about cool experiences, like theme park trips, just like their peers. It’s even better if they’ve done more fun stuff than their classmates and friends!
Remember, kids who struggle with weight have often been on the receiving end of negative attention, criticism, even bullying at school — and they often don’t tell their parents about the worst of it.
Making sure their camp experience gives them lots of great stories to share helps them fit in when school starts again.
Finally, keep in mind that you want nearby adult supervision for teens once the evening ends and everyone heads to their rooms.
Your camp should provide many, and varied, opportunities to practice new skills in a broad range of realistic settings. It should ensure that campers are never isolated from staff, and of course it should also offer a healthy dose of fun!
- How do you prepare campers to make good food and fitness choices in real-world settings?
- Are meals entirely portion-controlled or do campers have daily opportunities to make their own food choices?
- Do your menus reflect familiar foods and dishes?
- What opportunities do they have to practice self-regulation skills with regard to food choices?
- Where are counselor rooms relative to camper rooms?
- How are rooms separated for campers of different ages or genders?
- What experiences will my child love talking about with friends or classmates?
For example, we’re in a dream vacation location, and our camps provide a self-controlled food bar at every meal in addition to realistically-portioned meals using familiar foods. Campers also get continuous real-world practice during grocery store and restaurant field trips, theme park visits and other day trips.
5. Does the camp’s staff “walk the talk”?
Everyone from the clinical director to the recreation counselors should model the same behaviors that they want your child to learn.
If the camp staff routinely eats meals off-site, or has access to different food, or doesn’t engage in fitness activities, this sends the wrong message to campers.
All camp staff should follow the same program that the campers follow: eating the same food, doing the same activities (not just watching from the sidelines!), and modeling consistent application of cognitive-behavioral life skills.
- Does everyone on your staff attend and eat the same meals that the campers do?
- Is everyone modeling daily physical activity?
- How often does your camp staff eat meals offsite during camp?
At our camps, we thoroughly train every single person on our program, and everyone from the director to the program coaches to the counselor applies the same life skills, healthy habits, and nutrition and fitness principles that our campers do.
It’s easy for us to make sure that happens, because we maintain year-round staff and emphasize continuity from one year to the next when we hire our summer camp staff. In fact, it’s not unusual for campers to return as junior counselors.
6. Who’s really coaching your child?
Successful weight loss programs are about far more than meals and workouts. They include a significant component of behavior therapy, delivered by knowledgeable, experienced professionals with masters or doctoral training in psychology and other health-related fields.
They require a combination of one-on-one coaching and small group coaching, tailored to the individual barriers that your child faces.
It’s not work that college students arrive qualified to do, even if they’re majoring in nutrition, psychology, human development, kinesiology or a pre-med or pre-nursing curriculum.
Like a lot of camps, we use college students as counselors and activity coordinators, positions where they can build expertise while learning to make a difference in the lives of others. But unlike most camps, we will never employ them as the primary or only source of guidance for your child.
Experienced weight loss professionals with masters or doctoral training in psychology and other health-related fields should deliver the core curriculum and all one-on-one and small-group life skills and behavior coaching.
- How many of your staff is college students? What specifically are their job responsibilities, and how long have they worked at the camp?
- How often will my child be working one-on-one with a licensed health and wellness professional?
- How often will my child be in a small group class led by a licensed professional?
- Will there be ongoing assessments of my child during camp to identify any special concerns? Who is responsible for this?
- How big are the “small” groups?
- How many kids typically attend the camp session we’re considering?
- What is the camper/staff ratio?
For example, our behavior coaches are all clinical professionals with graduate training and substantial experience in cognitive-behavioral principles, health and behavior change coaching, and weight loss coaching. Our program builds in individualized one-on-one coaching in additional to small-group classes. And we average 1 staffer per every 5 campers!
7. Does each camper receive a personalized after-camp plan?
Camp is a great place to learn new habits and get intensive practice in applying them every day in all kinds of situations.
And yet, without exception, families and clinicians agree that it is not the same as making good decisions at home, after camp is over, when all the normal stresses and challenges return.
Weight loss campers that focus all their energies on camp — with just a nod to after-camp support — do not set campers up for long-term success.
Your weight loss camp should collaborate with each camper to develop an in-depth, detailed and personalized At-Home Plan tailored to their specific barriers to success, interests, priorities and more.
- Can you show me an example of a typical At-Home Plan?
- Is the At-Home Plan individualized for each camper? (If “yes” ask to see two different examples)
- Is each camper involved in building their own At-Home Plan? How?
- How do you ensure that the At-Home Plans are actually useful?
- Is after-camp clinical support available? Does it cost extra?
8. Does the camp provide after-camp clinical support?
The reality is that campers and their parents often have questions or need a helping hand as they work to make new life skills and healthy habits their “new normal.” Sometimes, things that were pretty simple at camp become much more complicated back home.
Sometimes, new issues emerge. For example, a teen struggling with the death of a cherished grandparent may struggle to stay on track with daily habits.
Your weight loss camp’s tuition should include 12 months of clinical support. Why? Because each season of the year brings different challenges that can derail a healthy lifestyle. Support to deal successfully with those things — applying skills and strategies first learned at camp — reinforces success.
It takes 12 months to cycle through all of the major stresses and pressures that most teens and young adults will be exposed to: the school year with social and academic pressure; major holidays that can derail healthy lifestyles like Thanksgiving and Christmas; summers, when huge amounts of free time, summer jobs and summer social activities often create new challenges to a healthy lifestyle.
- How much free clinical after-camp support does tuition include?
- Can I talk live to a therapist, nutritionist or other healthcare professional?
- Am I limited to a certain number of questions?
- If after-camp support is extra, how much does it cost and how long does it last?
For example, Empowered Wellness weight loss camp tuition includes a full year of free, unlimited telephone and email access to our year-round staff of licensed psychologists, nutritionists and child development specialists. In our experience, continuing that support helps ensure lasting success.
Move forward with confidence
Use these guidelines to identify the camp that’s right for your child, and move forward with confidence that this time, things will be different.