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The Skinny on Diet Scams

“Lose 30 pounds in 30 days!” “Block the absorption of fat, carbs, and calories with this pill!” “Wear this and watch the pounds melt away.”

Whether you’re flipping through a magazine, scanning the aisles of a health store, or watching late-night television, you’re bound to see slogans like these touting the latest and greatest product designed to help YOU lose weight.

But chances are the only thing you’ll lose by purchasing the latest “miracle diet product” is money. Diet scams are big business with sellers vying for their share of the nearly $35 billion that Americans spend each year on weight loss products and programs.

Top Diet Scams

Experts say roughly the same top five diet scams seem to keep resurfacing every few years, each time with a shiny new marketing gimmick. But they’re all based on the same bad science.

Those top five diet scams include:

—Metabolism-boosting pills based on herbal ingredients

—Fat-and carb-blocking pills

—Herbal weight loss teas

—Diet patches, jewelry, or other products worn on the body

—Body wraps or “slim suits”

“There have always been quack weight loss schemes out there because nobody ever believes that you can’t lose weight faster than you gained it,” says registered dietician Althea Zanecosky.

“It maybe took two years for them to gain those 15 pounds, but they want to lose it in two weeks.”

A more realistic timetable for lasting weight loss is to lose about a pound or two a week, says Zanecosky.

Diet Scams Not Regulated

Nonetheless, researchers say diet scams continue to flourish, thanks in part to the law of supply and demand as a growing number of Americans find themselves overweight and looking for an easier way to lose it.

In addition, many of the most popular diet scams are based on herbal ingredients, which are not regulated as drugs by the FDA. Therefore, the weight loss claims are not evaluated for accuracy by the FDA.

In fact, a recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report found that more than half of the weight-loss ads that ran in 2001 made at least one false or unsubstantiated claim.

“Now, more and more people seem to feel that there is some magic compound or practice, and there really isn’t,” Zanecosky tells WebMD. “Nobody gets the whistle blown on them unless someone dies or has something really awful happen to them.”

Even when diet scams don’t prove dangerous, experts say relying on pills, patches, creams, and other gadgets to lose weight keeps millions of people from seeking weight loss programs that could really help them lose weight and reduce their risk of disease.

“Most people need something more than a pill or diet aid to get them past the behaviors that got them into trouble in the first place. These products lead people to believe that there is a product that can fix the problem, and 100 percent of the time there isn’t a product that can fix the problem,” says Zanecosky.

Sorting Out the Diet Scams

1. Metabolism-boosting/calorie-burning pills

At the top of the list of diet scams are pills based on herbal ingredients that promise to boost your metabolism and help you burn calories or fat faster.

“New herbs always seem to percolate to the top as potential diet aids, as one leaves another shows up because the FDA doesn’t monitor herbs,” says Zanecosky. “Most of time they are just ineffective; once in a while they are dangerous.”

Two recent examples of herbal diet pills that caught the attention of the FDA as dangerous are ephedra and kava (Piper methysticum, also known as kava kava).

Until recently, ephedra was found in many herbal dietary supplements for weight loss, but in February 2004, the FDA banned the sale of ephedra in any dietary supplement in the U.S. due to the risk of illness or injury. The herb is a close chemical cousin of methamphetamine or speed and can cause high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, insomnia, nervousness, tremors, seizures, heart attacks, strokes, and even death.

Kava is a plant found in the islands of the South Pacific. Supplements containing the herbal ingredient are often promoted for relaxation as well as weight loss. But the FDA issued a warning in 2002 that use of supplements containing kava has been linked to severe liver injury.

2. Fat- and carb-blocking pills

Pills that claim to block your body’s absorption of fat and more recently carbohydrates are also commonly-sold diet scams.

Even if these fat and carb blockers worked as they say they do, researchers say the effects can be dangerous if not just plain unpleasant.

It’s like making someone lactose intolerant, says Zanecosky. By making the body unable to breakdown nutrients in the body, which leads to gastrointestinal problems like diarrhea, bloating, and gas, these pills also block the absorption of the vitamins that travel with these nutrients.

“Why would someone purposely submit themselves to that?” says Zanecosky. “Some fat blockers might have something in them that can interfere with how people absorb fat, but they’ve never been shown to help with substantial weight loss.”

3. Weight loss teas

Teas based on herbal ingredients are also touted as diet aids, but researchers say the main ingredient in many of these teas is caffeine, which is a diuretic and leads to water loss.

“Losing water isn’t losing weight,” says Zanecosky. “Caffeine can also increase metabolic rate by a small amount but not enough that you would be able to say that it contributed to weight loss.”

Registered dietitian Nelda Mercer agrees and says the only potential weight loss benefit of drinking herbal teas might be using them as a substitute for high-calorie beverages.

Mercer says that with some diet teas, it’s the program the comes along with the teas that may sometimes promote weight loss, such as teas that recommend you drink it after dinner and then not eat anything else until morning. That way it could curb late-night eating, but it’s not necessarily a result of drinking the tea itself.

4. Diet patches and jewelry

Patches that deliver drugs though the skin have become popular for helping smokers quit and delivering estrogen to relieve menopausal symptoms.

But experts say no effective weight loss drugs have been designed to be delivered through the skin via patches. Most of the time, these patches contain the same ineffective herbs found in dietary supplements or teas.

Also included in this diet scam category is jewelry, such as earrings or bracelets, designed to be worn on the body with the promise to help people shed pounds. According to the FTC, any claim that people can lose even a pound or more a week using these devices is false.

5. Body wraps or “slim suits”

If there were an “oldie but goodie” diet scam prize winner, experts say it would likely go to body wraps.

The thick, layered sweat suits once popular decades ago have morphed into silver “slim suits” and fat-melting body wraps designed to lock body heat in and melt away the pounds.

But researchers say the only type of weight loss caused by wearing these outfits is water loss caused by excessive sweating. As soon as you take a drink, you’ll gain all that water weight back.

How to Spot a Diet Scam

Experts say the only way to lose weight for the long haul is to burn more calories than you eat, and that process is slow. That means any diet products or program that promises “quick and easy” weight loss without any effort or sacrifice is bound to be bogus.

But if that’s not enough to raise your suspicions, here are some frequently used buzz words to watch for, according to the FTC:

No Diet! No Exercise!Lose 30 Pounds in 30 DaysEat Your Favorite Foods and Still Lose WeightShrinks Inches Off Your Stomach, Waist, and HipsScientists Announce Incredible Discovery!Revolutionary European Method! Ancient Chinese Secret!Turn On Your Body's Fat-Burning ProcessAutomatically Convert Fat to Lean Trim Muscle!Absorbs FatDeveloped After Years of Secret ResearchNew Scientific/Medical Breakthrough

Not only do diet scam pitchmen tend to use the same words in their advertising, the FTC says they also employ some of the same sales techniques, such as:

—Extravagant claims of dramatic, rapid weight loss.

—Testimonials from "famous" doctors, researchers, or other medical experts.

—Dramatic before-and-after photos depicting substantial weight loss.

—Ads that tout the latest trendy ingredient in the headlines.

—A footnote hidden somewhere in an ad noting "diet and exercise required."

“Any time you are tempted to get a new diet product, my advice would be to look into what the claims are and if they can be substantiated by science,” says Mercer. “What people want is a magic bullet and quick fix, and that’s never going to work. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.”

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Nelda Mercer, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association. Althea Zanecosky, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association. FDA. Federal Trade Commission. WebMD Feature: “Quick Weight Loss or Quackery?” WebMD Feature: “Quack Diet Red Flags.” WebMD Medical Reference provided in collaboration with The Cleveland Clinic: “Weight Loss: Over-the-Counter and Herbal Remedies for Weight Loss.”