Diet Products, Advice, and Quackery

By Richard Asa @RickAsa
September 17, 2015

There is nothing you can take that will make pounds disappear.

Americans spend more than $66 billion annually on weight-loss products. Yet, there are no powders, plants, or potions that will accomplish your goal. Some approved pills may have side effects. Other products are just dangerous.

Weight loss takes persistence, patience, vigilance, and professional guidance. Exercise helps. When it comes down to it, you have to work at burning more calories than you consume.

In an incredible yet true example of how audacious weight-loss quackery can be, caffeine-infused underwear and sportswear were promoted to women as a way to rapidly lose weight and reduce cellulite. In that case, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), demanded that the claims stop unless they could be supported by valid scientific evidence. They couldn’t.

“Too often, people who are desperate for an effortless path to losing weight and becoming trimmer allow themselves to become victims of modern-day snake oil salesmen,” says the watchdog group Public Citizen. “As a consumer, you can protect yourself by applying a simple rule when evaluating marketing claims: If it sounds too good to be true, don’t waste your money.”

Another consumer health watchdog, Quackwatch, notes that despite “unprecedented” law enforcement by the FTC, deceptive weight-loss advertising is “rampant.”

“Many promoters of dietary schemes would have us believe that a special substance or combination of foods (fad diets) will automatically result in weight reduction,” says Stephen Barrett, MD, a consumer fraud investigator for more than 30 years and Quackwatch founder. “That's simply not true. To lose weight, you must eat less, or exercise more, or do both.”

To make it harder for you to steer clear, many of these weight-loss products are pushed by well-known people known as celebrities, and in America, that counts. Keep in mind that just because someone has a television show, he isn’t necessarily an expert on weight-loss products.

The FTC has issued statements on what it considers seven common, and false, weight-loss product claims. The first false claim, for instance, is that you will lose two pounds or more a week for a month or more without dieting or exercise.

Theoretically, the FTC says, such products would either need to cause “malabsorption of calories or increase metabolism (so-called `thermogenic agents’”).

“The number of calories that can be malabsorbed appears to be limited to 1,200 to 1,300 calories per week, or roughly one-third of a pound per week, at best. Accordingly, malabsorption alone is unlikely to lead to substantial weight loss.”  

People have been refining the “art” of weight loss schemes for more than a century, notes Yoni Freedhoff, MD, founder of the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa, Ontario. In a laugh-out-loud journal report, Freedhoff writes about some of his 20th century weight-loss memorabilia, a cornucopia of quackery that is alarming as well as funny.

One, the “Relax-a-cizor,” employed electric shocks as a treatment for obesity. You probably think that’s far-fetched. More than 400,000 units were sold between 1949 and 1970, when sales were stopped by the Food and Drug Administration.

“Visit any drugstore and you'll find that there is no shortage of magic pills for obesity, but that's nothing new,” writes Freedhoff, author of “The Diet Fix.” “Of this grouping of products from the past, the only one that “worked” was Obese Factor — yes, amphetamines.”

A review of weight-loss programs ranked time-tested Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig first. But the study concluded you can achieve significant weight loss through any low-carb or low-fat diet if you stick to it.

One study found that a good working relationship with your primary care doctor also can help you follow substantiated weight-loss programs and keep you off quackery road. Speaking of foods, even those can fall under the umbrella of quackery. It doesn’t take a pill to be misleading. A University of Glasgow nutrition expert, Michael Lean, called for legislation to prevent the marketing of foods that imply they help you lose weight.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, Lean said many food products use “false and unsubstantiated claims” to make you think they will help in weight reduction, such as saying they are “low fat.”

“The most effective way to lose weight and maintain weightloss over time is to monitor calorie intake, follow a healthy balanced diet, and be physically active,” says a Colorado State University fact sheet. Many diet products and programs offer a quick short-term fix, but there is no “magic bullet” for weight-loss. Period.


April 09, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA, and Janet O’Dell, RN