Joining a weight-loss program for your New Year's resolution? You could lose a lot more than your fat.
1. "Your wallet's gonna shrink too."
The holidays are over. You've devoured too much turkey and put away plenty of pudding. Now you've awakened from a tryptophan nap to a real nightmare — your waistline. And you have plenty of company. Nearly two-thirds of all Americans are overweight or obese, and they spend more than $30 billion each year to trim down. It's that figure, and not your own, that motivates weight-loss marketers to squeeze every penny from desperate dieters.
Several New Yorkers found that out two years ago when they joined LA Weight Loss Centers. Television and newspaper ads touted that dieters could join for "only $7 per week." The reality? First, it wasn't possible to pay as you go; customers had to fork over a yearly fee of $376 in advance. Plus, they had to buy nutrition bars for as much as $28 a week. The New York Attorney General's office investigated and found that the total cost of the program exceeded $800 (or more than $15 a week). Last January, after revising its contracts to fully disclose the program's costs, LA Weight Loss agreed to pay a $110,000 fine to settle false-advertising charges.
2. "We're big fat liars."
Janet Makinen was listening to a Tampa radio station when she heard an ad for Body Solutions with the enticing promise: "Lose weight while you sleep." Wanting to shed a few pounds, Makinen, 52, ordered a bottle of Body Solutions for $48. It sounded simple: Swallow a tablespoon of the fruity liquid before bed (and at least three hours after your last meal), and in a matter of weeks, you'll see results. What happened? After two and a half months, Makinen had gained 6 pounds -- and was out almost $150. Last January she filed suit in Pasco County, Fla., against Mark Nutritionals -- the maker of Body Solutions -- alleging false advertising. The company denies the charges. It has since dropped the slogan "lose weight while you sleep" from its promotions and now stresses exercise.
Fact is, most claims made by weight-loss programs are likely to be false. In September the Federal Trade Commission released a study that found 55% of ads strain credibility by making such claims as "works three times faster than fasting itself" or "lose up to 2 pounds daily." Says Richard Cleland, an assistant director at the FTC: "The ads are filled with testimonials about amounts of weight that are just physiologically impossible for a person to lose. You just don't lose 30 pounds in 30 days."
3. "Qualifications? Check out these photos."
Even though weight loss should be more about health than about squeezing into one dress size smaller, don't expect your local weight-loss center to be staffed with certified nutritionists -- as Janine White found out. Looking to lose 80 pounds earlier this year, White, 33, enrolled at a Jenny Craig in Tempe, Ariz. But when White first met her counselor and asked about her qualifications, the counselor did nothing more than show White a photo of how she looked before trying the Jenny Craig program. Three days later White canceled her membership, complaining that she did not want to make lifestyle changes that could affect her health without more-credentialed advice. "I was disappointed that the counselors were not medical professionals," she says.
Jenny Craig's Gina Madaio says the company does use former clients as counselors, but that they must pass an initial 40 hours of training, then take follow-up classes in nutrition, motivation and stress management. Madaio emphasizes that the consultants play an important role in providing the clients with support. As she puts it, "There is this kind of empathy."
4. "Our supplements could kill you . . ."
Ephedra. it's all-natural. It's an herb. It has been used in China for thousands of years. Sounds great -- too bad it's all meaningless when it comes to your safety. Ephedra is a stimulant found in some weight-loss products, and it has people stirred up -- for all the wrong reasons. Dr. Sidney Wolfe of the consumer-advocacy group Public Citizen is calling for a ban of ephedra dietary supplements, arguing that they were responsible for more than 100 deaths and hundreds of other cases of serious injury between 1993 and 2000.
In August, Metabolife International, the nation's largest producer of ephedra dietary supplements, voluntarily released more than 13,000 reports of possible side effects from its products. A Senate subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), analyzed the reports and found nearly 2,000 significant reactions, including seizures and strokes, related to Metabolife products. Durbin has called for the suspension of sales of ephedra "until we can ensure that it is safe." Metabolife maintains that its products are effective and that such anecdotal evidence does not demonstrate that they pose any health problems when used correctly.
5. ". . . and no one's regulating us."
Because dietary supplements are not drugs, they don't need to be proven safe before they reach the marketplace. Manufacturers don't even have to register with the Food and Drug Administration or get approval before they sell supplements. Instead, the burden is on the FDA to take action against a supplement manufacturer after the supplement has been sold, consumed and proved unsafe.
What is required? Not much, except that product labels cannot be misleading. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean you'll always get the full story when purchasing a supplement. "Instead of listing ephedra (on the label), manufacturers might list its Chinese name, ma huang," says Philip Gregory, associate editor of Prescriber's Letter, an advisory service for doctors on drug therapies. If you don't know that ma huang and ephedra are the same ingredient, you could be in for a rude wake-up after trying a supplement containing it.
6. "Don't blame us. We just sell the stuff."
heads up, weight-loss marketers: Jon Cooper has you on his radar. In 2000, Cooper, a Suffolk County, N.Y., legislator, sponsored the first bill in the country to ban the use of handheld cell phones while driving. Now he wants to ban the sale of all supplements containing ephedra in Suffolk County. And his target is not just the manufacturers using ephedra. "It will be the responsibility of stores to clear the shelves of these products," says Cooper.
Increasingly, retailers are being named along with manufacturers as defendants in wrongful death lawsuits involving ephedra. So far, many of the cases involve individuals who used supplements to improve athletic performance, not to lose weight. But with more people (especially teenagers) using ephedra-containing supplements for dietary reasons, retailers are becoming targets for litigation. To avoid problems, some are changing sales policies. In November, GNC announced that it would begin carding people who want to buy supplements intended for use by adults. It will also provide additional product information in its stores.
7. "Welcome to fat camp, kid. Get ready to starve."
consider yourself lucky if you've never been razzed with "fatty fatty two-by-four, can't get through the kitchen door." Lots of overweight kids can't say that, though -- and their numbers are multiplying. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that 15% of children ages six through 19 are overweight, or nearly triple thepercentage from 1980.
For kids who won't lay off the Big Macs, more parents are looking into camps that specialize in trimming down chubby children with regimented menus and exercise programs. Sounds promising -- just beware: "There are camps that are like boot camps. The trainers operate from the 'no pain, no gain' mentality," says Melinda Sothern, coauthor of Trim Kids and director of pediatric obesity research at Louisiana State University. While admitting the camps can be a positive experience, she warns that without family participation the kids often return home to the conditions that contributed to their original problems.
8. "We'll tuck your tummy -- and maybe keep you ticking."
the today show's Al Roker isn't the only one who has gone under the knife to lessen his load. The number of gastric bypass surgeries, which reduce the size of a patient's stomach and reroute part of the intestine so fewer calories are absorbed, is ballooning. Last year nearly 63,100 such surgeries were performed, up 34% over 2001.
Unfortunately, not everyone can stomach the operation. According to the American Society for Bariatric Surgery, the death rate for gastric bypass is three in every 1,000 patients. Plus, potential complications include malnutrition, abdominal infection and gallstones. Then there's the issue of teenagers having the surgery. In a recent editorial in the medical journal Pediatrics, Dr. Sue Y.S. Kimm, a professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, expressed concern that physicians are entertaining gastric bypass surgery as an option for young patients: "My major concern is not so much the immediate post-op complications, but the long-term complications." She points out that the surgery is known to limit calcium absorption by the body. To perform the surgery when the bones are still forming raises questions that have not been fully studied.
9. "Forget 'lite' food. Just eat less."
something's not computing. The sales of food products labeled "lite," "lean" and "better for you" keep expanding, but so do American waistlines. Market-research firm Information Resources says sales of such weight-loss foods reached $5 billion in 2001, up 2.4% from 2000. Witness Frito-Lay, which sold $62 million in Baked Lays potato chips in 2001. The trouble? Such product labeling can be misleading. The Atkins Diet, for example, is built around limiting carbohydrates. So it was more than upsetting to many Atkins followers that its diet products contained more carbohydrates than the label indicated. Atkins Nutritionals denies any wrongdoing, but is in the process of settling a class-action lawsuit brought against it for $100,000.
In June the American Heart Association reported that foods made with fat substitutes can provide some flexibility in a diet but shouldn't be a strategy for weight loss. Why? Reduced-fat versions of products often have the same or even more calories than full-fat versions. Ultimately, says Dr. Robert Eckel of the American Heart Association, obesity is a calorie problem. As he puts it, "Some diets blame obesity on carbohydrates. You can't do that. You have to blame it on calories."
10. "Our guarantee: We'll drive you crazy."
the ads seemed inescapable. Between October 2001 and last January, more than $8 million was spent to broadcast an infomercial for the AB Energizer -- an electronic muscle stimulator belt that promised to help tone abs. Plus, the AB Energizer came with a money-back guarantee. "If you don't lose at least 2 inches off your waist in the first 30 days," the infomercial touted, "return it for a full refund . . . no questions asked." Turns out consumers had more than just questions. The Better Business Bureau says it has received more than 500 complaints from AB Energizer customers seeking refunds.
In the world of weight-loss products, money-back guarantees are routine. The FTC found that 52% of the weight-loss ads it studied contained promises of guaranteed results. But as Ron Berry, senior vice president of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, cautions, "Guarantees are only as good as the company behind them." The FTC is now suing the various companies involved in marketing the AB Energizer, alleging that consumers who sought refunds could not reach a customer-service operator. The companies deny the allegations.