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10 things the diet companies don't want you to know -- Page 2

5. Don't believe everything you hear.
Mark Nutritionals Inc., a Texas-based company selling the Body Solutions Evening Weight Formula, advertised on the radio that you could shed unwanted pounds in your sleep without having to change your diet or exercise.

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In 2002, it was heard on more than 650 radio stations with over 700 endorsers in 110 U.S. cities, making it one of the largest radio advertisers in the country.

"They picked DJs to endorse the product who commanded and controlled their audience," says Tom Carter, senior attorney in the FTC's southwest regional office in Dallas, who successfully brought suit against Mark Nutritionals, as did the states of Illinois, Texas and Pennsylvania.

"It wasn't just misleading advertising, it was false," adds Carter, who just settled the case against the company and its two principal owners. In only three years of operation, Mark Nutritionals amassed $155 million in revenue, most of it lost to the millions of consumers who believed you could "lose weight while you sleep." Mark Nutritionals is no longer operational.

6. 'Natural' or 'herbal' doesn't guarantee safety.
"We don't have a good definition of 'natural,' " laments Dr. Blackburn of the Harvard Medical School.

Consumers assume that because a product is natural, it couldn't possibly be harmful, says a Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman. "It's a buyer-beware industry. Consumers don't realize this," she explains.

The manufacturer is responsible for ensuring the safety of their products before putting them out in the marketplace. Until the FDA receives evidence that a product is harmful, the manufacturers are free to put their products out in the marketplace.

One "natural" diet supplement in the news lately is ephedra. It's an amphetamine-like diet supplement derived from the Chinese herb ma huang and has been found to constrict the blood vessels, speed the heart rate and raise blood pressure.

The FDA received more than 16,000 complaints of adverse reactions to the herb, which is found in more than 200 dietary supplements sold over the counter. It has been linked to 155 deaths from heart attacks and strokes. Hundreds of ephedra victims have filed suit.

Recently, after more than six years of study, the FDA announced plans to ban the "fat-burning" herb ephedra, declaring it a hazard even for healthy adults.

But ephedra is not the only "natural" product on the FDA's watch list. It has issued warnings of "possible health hazards" against herb-supplement products containing chaparral, comfrey, willow bark and wormwood. Additional items on the watch list include supplements and so-called dieter's teas that contain senna, cascara, aloe, buckthorn and other plant-derived laxatives.

7. Fad diets don't work.
Sudden and radical changes in your eating patterns are difficult to sustain over time, say the experts. So-called crash diets often send dieters into a cycle of quick weight loss followed by a "rebound" weight gain once normal eating resumes, which leads to even more difficulty when the next diet is attempted.

"Fad diet means you get on some type of elimination program and you can't stay with it," explains Dr. Blackburn. "There's no health benefit from weight loss regained. If you can't do what you did to cut the calories to lose those few pounds for the rest of your life, you can't maintain the weight loss."

"Hundreds and hundreds of diet books have been published over the last few decades," agrees Mark J. Occhipinti, an exercise physiologist and lecturer on diet and exercise.

"If any one of them truly worked, there wouldn't be the need for another one."

8. It will cost you.
All three of the largest national weight loss chains -- Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig and LA Weight Loss -- continue to make millions in revenue. In 2003, Weight Watchers' revenue was approximately $943 million, while Jenny Craig saw $280 million and LA Weight Loss climbed from revenues of $105 million in 2001 to $250 million and counting in 2003.

According to the Marketdata's John LaRosa, costs of these programs vary regionally (franchises have latitude in what they charge) and individually. On average, joining Jenny Craig will set you back between $199 and $299 initially, plus $70 per week to buy its meals. Weight Watchers charges $29 to join and between $8 and $12 per week for meetings. LA Weight Loss sells a year's program in advance and averages $575 for a full year's service. Costs could go higher, depending on how many of the company's bars and supplements you buy. Marketdata Enterprises Inc., is an independent Tampa-based market research firm.

But Dr. Blackburn thinks programs such as Weight Watchers are worth the expenditure.

"The costs of obesity are extremely high. It's not a cosmetics issue. Successful weight loss of even five to 10 pounds can save hundreds of dollars per person and hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy in health-care costs. Programs that teach you a healthy diet and lifestyle produce the best outcomes."

9. Don't count on the 'money-back guarantee.'
According to the FTC, you have as much chance of getting back your money as you do having the product do what it claims.

"While money-back guarantees -- if honored -- may benefit consumers, there is no reason for consumers to have any more confidence in them than in a claim that the product will actually work," says Cleland. The FTC has frequently sued companies that "guaranteed" to give consumers their money back but didn't, he says.

10. There is no magic bullet.
Some dieters place their hopes on pills and capsules that promise to "burn," "block" or "flush" fat from the body. But science has yet to come up with a low-risk magic bullet for weight loss. Some pills may control appetite but can have serious side effects. Amphetamines, for instance, are highly addictive and can have an adverse impact on the heart and central nervous system. Other pills are utterly worthless.

"There is no quick fix," stresses Dr. Blackburn.

"Let's be realistic. You can't solve years of overeating overnight. You have to cut your calories and you have to keep at it. How do you get to play the piano? You practice! It's the same for permanent weight loss. You practice and practice healthy eating until you get it right."

-- Updated: Feb. 2, 2005




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