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10 secrets the diet industry doesn't want you to know

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.

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.

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.

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."


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