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10 secrets of the weight-loss industry

It's that time of year when millions of Americans struggle to once again lose some unwanted pounds. And the weight loss business is booming. From pills, potions and programs to gadgets, diet food and drinks, we're gobbling them up, seeking an easy solution to our weight problems.

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Before you open your wallet or dive into a new program, consider this: Of the 50 million Americans who will go on some kind of diet program, a slim percentage will successfully shed the weight and keep it off.

Only 5 to 10 percent of us succeed, but we all contribute to the staggering $40 billion in revenue amassed by the weight-loss industry annually. By the year 2006, revenues are estimated to top $48 billion.

Millions of us succumb to quick-fix claims such as "Eat all you want and still lose weight" or "Melt away fat while you sleep." We find it hard to believe in this age of scientific breakthroughs and medical miracles that an effortless weight-loss method doesn't exist. But it doesn't.

To help you sort through the claims, avoid the scams and become a more educated consumer, here are 10 things the weight-loss companies don't want you to know.

1. Most weight-loss product ads are deceiving, so don't believe everything you read.
A lot of the weight-loss advertisements need some toning of their own, according to a report from the Federal Trade Commission.

"False and misleading claims in weight-loss ads are widespread," declares Richard Cleland, a lawyer with the FTC and lead author of the report.

An FTC review of more than 300 ads from radio, television, magazines and newspapers that ran during 2001-2002 found that a whopping 55 percent made claims promising more than the product or service could likely deliver.

"Consumers really need to read these ads with a big dollop of skepticism," says Cleland.

"Deceptive ads do nothing to address an individual's weight problem. If anything, they compound an already serious national health crisis by steering consumers away from weight-loss methods that have demonstrated benefits."

Claims such as "rapid weight loss," "no diet or exercise required," "eat whatever you want" and "take it off and keep it off" are all hot buttons that advertisers use to get consumers to buy their products and services, he says. "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

2. 'Scientifically proven' or 'doctor-endorsed' doesn't mean it works.
Many products claim to be tested at "respected," "major" or "leading" medical centers or universities. Yet, rarely is the information provided on where the study was conducted, by whom or where it was published to help consumers assess the validity of such claims.

Plus, when a product claims to be "recommended" or "approved" or "discovered" by a health professional, what does that really mean?

"Often there's no scientific evidence behind Dr. X's claims," notes Dr. George Blackburn, a member of the government-sponsored Partnership for Healthy Weight Management and assistant director of nutrition medicine at the Harvard Medical School.

And often the endorsements fail to disclose that the health professional doing the recommending has a financial interest in the product, or that he or she may not have reviewed the scientific evidence. Even if it was reviewed, he or she may not have used acceptable review standards.

And, says Cleland, "The 'professionals' can be fictitious."

3. Testimonials are not a good indicator of a product's success.
Common on television, in print ads and on the Internet are the "before and after" testimonials -- personal accounts of success -- in support of a product or service, many with before and after photographs.

"Testimonials generally provide little reliable information about what consumers can expect from using the product," says Cleland, the assistant director of the FTC's division of advertising practices.

Typically, in the "before" photos, the person appears with poor posture, a neutral facial expression, unkempt hair, unfashionable clothes and washed-out skin tones. The "after" photos generally are better lit. The person stands with shoulders held back, tummy tucked in, wearing smarter-looking clothes and is carefully made up, coiffed and smiling.

More than 10 percent of the testimonials reviewed by the FTC claimed an amount of weight loss that was extremely unlikely -- if not impossible. The rest claimed results that occurred in a very small percentage of users, says Cleland.

Adds Dr. Blackburn: "Sometimes companies take healthy people, make them overeat and the "after" picture shown is really what the person looked like before they began overeating.

4. Just because the government allows it on the market doesn't mean it's safe or does what it claims.
There's a misperception that the government wouldn't allow a product to be marketed if it were bad for you, says Cleland. "People think these products have been pre-approved by the government before allowing it to be sold. That's not the case."

The majority of diet products on the market today are dietary supplements. Under the DSHEA, or Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act passed by Congress in 1994, the law doesn't require the manufacturers of dietary supplements to demonstrate that their product is safe or efficacious before it goes on the market.

"It's a totally post-market surveillance system. In terms of law enforcement, there are too many of them and not enough of us," says Cleland.

In the last 10 years, the FTC has brought over 100 cases against manufacturers for false and misleading claims and advertising.

"Frankly," laments Cleland, "it's just a drop in the bucket of the cases we could have brought."

He says that despite the unprecedented level of FTC enforcement, misleading and deceptive ads continue to saturate the market.

-- Updated: Feb. 2, 2005




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