Weight Loss Counselors: The Profession
Summary & Comment
As a profession, weight loss counseling is one of the least investigated jobs in the country. Curiously, very few customers of weight loss programs question or ask about the background and qualifications of the counselors that they depend on daily or weekly. They should, because consumers spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for a typical weight loss program. They deserve to be treated by competent staff, who ideally should have expertise in nutrition, exercise, and psychology/motivational techniques. They should also have been successful at losing weight and keeping it off. After all, why take advice from someone who herself is overweight?
Counselors are predominantly female and come from a wide variety of backgrounds, spanning all ages, college grads to high school grads. They could be your next door neighbor who was successful at losing weight and went through in-house training at the local weight loss center, or they could be a degreed professional such as a dietitian or health educator. The profession is very easy to enter.
There are some excellent independent organizations such as LEARN and The Cooper Institute, that offer formal certification, training and tests to become a weight loss or "lifestyle" counselor. However, few people nationwide have bothered to obtain this training and pay the fees. Rather, most counselors are trained in-house by the weight loss company. If they are outgoing and have a sales background, so much the better, since part of their pay may be dependent upon commissions.
Generally, most weight loss counselors do not last long in this profession (although Weight Watchers group leaders seem to be the exception and many stay for 6-8 years or longer). Turnover is high, probably because earnings are low. BestDietForMe.com/Marketdata analysts estimated that in 1995 the typical annual earnings were $15,000-19,000. Factoring in inflation and moderate raises since then, today we estimate the average to be in the $22,000 range. It will vary by company and region. Top earners may make in the low $30s.
Today, as of 2004, counselors affiliated with one of the weight loss websites or telephone counseling programs may be as good or better than those working for your local retail weight loss center. The quality of these services has improved significantly during the past three years. Staff is usually supported by a physician, nurse, or dietitian.
In general, the larger the weight loss company, the better the quality of its counselors. Weight Watchers has long been known to have very good group leaders that stay with the company. Jenny Craig now has an affiliation with the Cooper Institute, which raises the competence of their counselors. eDiets.com has competent counselors backed up by degreed healthcare professionals. And, large HMO systems such as HealthPartners (a telephone weight loss counseling plan) use nurses, dietitians, and degreed health educators.
Also, the quality of counselors working for medically supervised weight loss programs is likely to be better than many commercial diet companies. The staff is more likely to be a varied and multidisciplinary one. You pay more for a medical weight loss program, but you tend to get more for your money. It’s unlikely they will use a housewife or college student with a retail background. Medical weight loss programs are more serious, sometimes involving prescription drugs and fasting. Therefore, they must be staffed by clinical professionals.
BestDietForMe.com/Marketdata did its first investigation of the "profession" of weight loss counselors in the Fall of 1992, publishing findings in our October 1992 Diet Business Bulletin. We followed this up with another investigation in 1995, and have tried to keep up with the profession since then. What happens "inside" Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Nutri-System, Diet Center, and other well-known diet companies?
Such information doesn’t come easy. One must identify and interview people who used to work for a diet company , who then left or were fired, or transferred to another weight loss chain. Or, one could contact the headquarters’ management of the diet companies themselves to ask them about their recruitment methods, career opportunities, and training programs. That’s exactly what BestDietForMe.com/Marketdata did.
Whenever commercial weight loss companies experience flat or declining revenues, there is less money available to attract and retain quality weight loss counselors. Compensation was and may still be based in no small part on the volume of clients seen, attendance at company workshops and meetings, as well as a percentage of the value of company food clients buy. Hiring people with 4-year college degrees was done to some extent years ago, but is rare today. Lower counselor earnings unfortunately means that the weight loss companies face continuing high turnover of dissatisfied employees who pursue alternative careers, or start their own diet programs.
This winds up being a "Catch-22" situation: you have to pay decent wages to counselors to attract good people with relevant skills, who are able to sign up clients. But first, company revenues must be high enough to pay the counselors well. The companies with the advantage are those who have large enough cash "cushions" to invest in staff FIRST, then wait for the business to follow later.
It’s probable that more diet companies will go to straight salary or less total compensation related to commissions. Whenever the volume of clients drops, it becomes difficult to base a counselors’ pay strictly on the number of customers seen per hour, the number attending meetings, number buying food, etc.
When funds are tight, "extra" company programs such as more in-depth training will be cut, along with other costs. Consequently, for the dieting consumer this could be a potentially dangerous time to sign up with one of the smaller weight loss firms where training might be limited. There is a real risk that many of these companies, due to lower revenues, will hire anyone they can get to take the job.
Many weight loss counselors do not view the job as a "career" but rather a temporary job with a limited life. There is no degree associated with the position. As a result, many leave for other fields (certified personal trainer, fitness instructor, nutritionist, etc.), often competing with the weight loss company they leave.
Most counselors we interviewed feel that today, a good weight loss counselor needs training and experience in all of these areas…. nutrition, psychology or counseling, and personal experience or success in losing weight. If that person also has some sales background, so much the better.
How Many Counselors Are There In the U.S.?
The total number is unknown, but BestDietForMe.com/Marketdata estimates that there are currently at least 15,000 commercial weight loss counselors working in the industry, plus those working for online diet websites such as eDiets.com. In addition approximately 25% of the 18,000 health clubs in the nation offer some form of weight loss counseling service, workshop or program, and they average 1-3 counselors per facility. Weight Watchers has approximately 4,000 total meeting locations, most of which take place in informal sites such as schools, at the worksite, churches, synagogues, etc. Most the meetings have several counselors present.
Registered dietitians are good sources of personnel for many diet companies. Many are looking for work, especially those fresh out of school. They rely heavily on referrals from hospitals they worked at, or colleagues met during their training. But, it takes time to build a practice.
Staff Titles & Job Functions
Some typical job titles of staff working at commercial weight loss centers included the following… weight loss counselor, group leader, nutritional specialist, lifestyle class facilitator, scale monitor, manager or assistant manager, program director, receptionist, regional/area/territory supervisor. For this article, we concentrated on the staff person who sees and counsels the customer on a daily or weekly basis, monitors their progress and recommends menus, weighs clients, motivates them, discusses relapses and setbacks or successes.
This person may or may not have a specific degree. She is more highly trained than a receptionist or customer service rep, and is not primarily a sales rep, but she usually does not hold a management position. For lack of a better term, we call this person a "weight loss counselor", although today Jenny Craig calls these people "consultants."
In addition, degreed professionals may also give talks or workshops periodically in the weight loss centers, or be employed as full-time staff to support the above people. These include: registered dietitians, nurses (RN, LPN), MD, psychologists.
Duties of the Staff, By Job Title
The following seems to be the typical weight loss center’s organization pyramid:
Area or Territory Regional Supervisor
Center Manager & Asst. Manager
Group Leader, Class Facilitator, Program Director
Weight Loss Counselor
Receptionist, Scale Monitor, Weigher
Contracted Personnel & Support Services
Psychologist, Dietitian, Nurse, Physician, Sales reps
So You Want To Be A Weight Loss Counselor?
One topic that in the past was a secret in the diet industry, and a sore point with commercial weight loss programs vs. the media is how the typical weight loss "counselor" is paid, what background she comes from, how well she’s trained, and how she moves up the career ladder within a commercial weight loss company. Rarely does one find information about this in company literature, magazines or newspaper articles about the industry. Competing weight loss companies don’t want others to know what they’re paying them, if they’re having turnover or morale problems, and they certainly don’t want the public to know if they don’t have adequate training in key areas.
Our Fall 1992 investigation found that weight loss counselors earned $16-19,000 a year on average. Of this, 50% came from commissions. Many started at $6 -10 per hour and compensations plans varied widely.
What Do They Earn?
In that year, based on lower enrollments and food sales volume, BestDietForMe.com/Marketdata estimated that the average counselor earned about $14,500 industry-wide, although in high-volume urban areas, for those working with the largest firms such as Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, and for those with more seniority, earnings could approach the low $20s.
A Diet Center manager told BestDietForMe.com/Marketdata that staff counselors (not nurses or dietitians) typically received a base pay of $5-6/hr. to start , plus a commission of perhaps 6% of the value of programs sold (new enrollments). She said that commissions did not represent the bulk of the total earnings.
More than a decade ago, starting pay was in the $5-6/hr. range for a part-timer, a receptionist or a customer that wants to work for the company. However, pay varied substantially, depending on the background and qualifications of the person. The average beginning pay was more like $5-10/hr. Jenny Craig personnel said that when commissions and incentives were added, the average full-time counselor earned closer to $10/hr., and commissions may have represented up to 50% of their total income.
A former Jenny Craig employee said that as a weight loss counselor she started at $5/hr, plus $2 for every client seen. This counselor said that the total annual income of a counselor in 1990, from all sources, was about $18,000 - 20,000—for the #1 or #2 company territory in the nation (California). Toward the end of the 1991 recession, with less customers, she estimated $16-19,000.
Where Do Diet Companies Find Counselors?
Weight loss centers generally recruit their new counselors from any of these areas:
Comments From Former Weight Loss Counselors
Some counselors claim that there is a big difference between company-owned centers and franchises, in terms of quality and depth of training.
Some say that the term "counselor" is actually a misnomer. "They’re really customer service reps who cannot deal with clients’ emotional problems. Everything is scripted and counselors may often refer customers to specialists in counseling or other community services. If questioned about their credentials, counselors say they work under the supervision of a dietitian."
Clients get turned off by working with counselors who are too thin.
Another counselor said that commercial weight loss center franchise owners/managers are intimidated by local health clubs who offer nutritional counseling and other weight control related services. They view them as direct competition. This counselor feels that there is more of a real "career" in the fitness field, since there are more legitimate positions and designations such as "certified personal trainer" or "aerobics instructor".
We interviewed management for information about Weight Watchers "leaders", which is the position closest to a "weight loss counselor". Leaders run group meetings but may also perform individual client counseling before and after meetings. Other major positions that exist include "receptionist-weighers" (who register and check in and weigh members. They are less involved with counseling members), and "center managers" (who do what receptionist-weighers do, plus individual counseling).
There are thousands of "leaders" working for Weight Watchers in the U.S., many of which work at company-owned operations. Their backgrounds and ages vary. Some are registered dietitians or have extensive nutrition background, although this is not required. Leaders are supplied with the technical data they need in training and what they say is strictly monitored via printed materials and guidelines. Some leaders are middle-aged, some young college grads, some men, some housewives, etc.
Leaders have to have achieved lifetime membership, reaching their goal weight and maintaining it within 2 lbs. The average tenure of a Weight Watchers leader (at company-owned operations) was cited as 8 years with the company, 7 as a leader. As for career paths, one may move into territory management, where the person manages 30 leaders and up to 50-60 additional staff.
At Jenny Craig, the firm has replaced the term "counselor" with "consultant". On average there are 4-8 of them working at each of its centers. Consultants come from a variety of backgrounds, some have 4-year degrees (exercise physiology, nutrition, etc.) while others may be former clients.
After they are hired, consultants receive 40 hours of training in: basic nutrition, active listening skills, behavior and motivational strategies. They also attend weekly staff meetings and ongoing monthly continuing education classes. Since Jenny Craig’s program has been developed by registered dietitians, psychologists and an advisory board, the firm feels that their internal training plus the access they have to company videos, cassettes, and guidebooks, gives the consultants an adequate knowledge to deal with clients’ weight loss issues. The consultant’s role is primarily to motivate clients, as well as to answer questions, weigh them and take measurements, review menu plans and progress.
To their credit, Jenny Craig has gone one step further. The company offers an Activity Certificate Program that teaches its consultants to recognize the stages of behavioral change in dieters and motivates clients to incorporate physical activity into their health goals. The program is part of a new relationship with The Cooper Institute, one of the nation’s top research organizations specializing in behavioral change related to physical activity. As part of this relationship, Jenny Craig’s weight loss consultants learn skills designed to determine the level of readiness for clients as they shift to an active lifestyle.
Counselor Training - Who Certifies and Tests Them?
Based on BestDietForMe.com/Marketdata discussions and interviews with the leading organizations that offer weight management counselor training and certification, we estimate that about 4,700+ people nationwide have received formal training and passed exams to earn the designation "certified" or "professional" weight loss counselor. Obviously, this is a small fraction of all the commercial counselors working in the industry, but it’s a start.
It appears that the large commercial chains are content to let other organizations develop programs and tests, at affordable cost, then let their counselors choose whether to take the course or not. As more of their staff become certified, these companies may tout these counselors as a "competitive edge", using them as a marketing tool to differentiate themselves from other firms in the business.
Following below are descriptions of the major weight loss counselor certifying bodies.
National Association of Weight Management Counselors (NAWMC)
This was the first organization formed to train and certify "certified weight loss counselors". This group is now defunct. In 1992 there was only one small independent organization offering "certification" or weight loss counselor training or courses or exams of any kind – The N.A.W.L.C A very minimal number of counselors (under 50) took the course and were certified, and very few if any of these people were employed by the major weight loss chains. Today, there are three certifying organizations.
American Council on Exercise (ACE)
4851 Paramount Drive
San Diego, CA 92123
Contact: Graham Melstrand
ACE is the largest non-profit fitness certifying organization in the world. ACE has certified more than 50,000 aerobics instructors and personal trainers since 1985. This group, which is well known within the fitness industry, in 1995 offered its first test for "Lifestyle and Weight Management Consultant". It was administered in conjunction with World Fitness IDEA in San Diego, with exams offered on a quarterly basis. This latter category represents about 3-4% of the total 50,000 people certified by ACE.
The Council said that this certification program (for weight management) may be discontinued by the end of 2004, due to lack of demand. No training is offered beyond this 175-question, multiple choice test, which costs $200 for the first time applicant.
A panel of 20 dietitians, psychologists, personal trainers and other professionals developed the test. To prepare for the test, applicants are provided a list of 15-20 books covering varied topics related to nutrition, exercise, behavior modification, etc.
The objective of this test is to develop a broad generalist or facilitator with skills in three areas: nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle change, as well as counseling and communication skills. It is designed to help weight loss counselors understand the scope of their expertise, where it ends, and when to refer clients to dietitians and other healthcare professionals.
After earning the Lifestyle and Weight Management Certification, consultants will be equipped to work with clients in a broad spectrum, of areas, including:
basic fitness assessment, e.g. walking tests, girth measurements
basic exercise programming
basic diet and nutrition education, e.g. knowledge of the food pyramid, reading labels, fat calorie and fat percentage calculations
facilitating lifestyle change.
It is important to note that they will be "generalists" and will not be able to act as registered dietitians or licensed counselors. They have the knowledge necessary to refer them to the appropriate specialist.
LEARN Institute for Lifestyle Management
The address of this organization is:
American Association of LifeStyle Counselors
P.O. Box 610410
Dallas, TX 75261
Contact: David Hager
This group’s "Lifestyle Counselor Certification Program" has certified about 700 people to date. Applicants come from most all states and from various backgrounds, including: MDs, nurses, students, psychologists, PhDs, directors of wellness programs, personal trainers, aerobics instructors, and current counselors working for commercial weight loss programs.
One major change in the Institute’s course in recent years is that rather than having to spend a week at their offices in Dallas, now people may perform the first two phases at home. This is a 3-phase certification. The first phase is home study, and you have up to a year to complete it. The second phase is a home study exam. Only in the 3rd phase do you go to Dallas for a 2-day seminar.
This course covers two major areas: 1) stress management, and 2) weight control. The cost is $195 for either course, or both for $295. There is an additional testing fee of $75. Finally, the 2-day seminar costs $280 for one course, or $450 for both. Consequently, if you want to obtain certification in weight loss only, it will cost a total of $550.
The course objective is to cross-train people who are counseling others about their weight, so that they acquire knowledge in areas where they are weak (i.e. a dietitian may need more training in exercise and behavior change, and a psychologist needs more training regarding nutrition). It also aims to provide counselors with the assessment tools needed to refer clients to other professionals in the community and it encourages them to develop referral networks.
Some topics covered include: how to identify eating disorders, the special needs of children, older adults, and cross-cultural differences, role of nutritional supplements, latest research findings in weight control, matching a program to an individual’s needs, and motivational strategies.
According to program literature: "The Lifestyle Counselor Certification Program has been specifically developed for health professional from diverse disciplines and backgrounds, including nutrition, psychology, medicine, nursing, health education, exercise science, social work, and others who work with clients on lifestyle behaviors."
The Cooper Institute
12330 Preston Rd.
Dallas, TX 75230
Before granting a certification to students 18 years of age or older, students must attend all lectures, obtain passing scores on written, verbal and practical examinations, as well as have a current CPR certification if applicable.
This organization offers a course called "Providing Dietary Guidance Specialty Certification." The course fee is $395. The Institute holds the course about five times per year, including a home study version. Several hundred people per year are certified. Going back to 1990, when the course was first offered, the Institute estimates that roughly 2,000 people have been certified to date. The course covers such areas as:
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