Sept. 13, 2021 -- Hey, have you heard about the new miracle fat loss product?
It’s a special tea you might see advertised in a magazine.
Or a lollipop promoted by a Kardashian.
Or a rubber vest you zip tight around your belly, shown on a TV commercial.
Or… or… or…
Health scams cost consumers countless millions. With obesity a serious problem, we’re vulnerable to marketing that promises to keep us healthy, slim, or strong. For correct information and strategies, trust your doctor and verifiable weight loss organizations, not someone advertising a quick solution in exchange for your money.
Here’s a primer on how to spot some concerning claims and make the right choices for your health, fitness, and wallet.
How the Government Advises Consumers
“Dishonest advertisers will say just about anything to get you to buy their weight loss products,” says the Federal Trade Commission. Here are some of the false promises that companies and people often pitch:
“Any promise of miraculous weight loss is simply untrue,” the FTC says. “There’s no magic way to lose weight without a sensible diet and regular exercise.”
Further, such claims aren’t always harmless. For example, “free” trial offers often cause consumers to spend money and be billed for recurring shipments of products they don’t want. And the FDA has found that some dietary supplements contain potentially harmful drugs or chemicals not listed on the label.
Federal law does not require dietary supplements to be proven safe before they’re sold, or that their claims are truthful. Some supplement ingredients, including nutrients and plant components, can be toxic, the FDA says.
To be sure you're getting a good-quality product, look for a seal of approval from the U.S. Pharmacopeia, ConsumerLab, or NSF International, which test products and verify ingredients.
What Can Be Harmful
Some products promoting weight loss and sports performance have been found to include ingredients that are not listed on the label, says Pieter Cohen, MD, a doctor at Cambridge Health Alliance.
In March, he and his colleagues said they tested 17 brands and found nine prohibited stimulants in them. Almost half the brands had at least one prohibited stimulant.
In 2016, Consumer Reports listed 15 supplement ingredients that can be harmful.
The list includes ingredients that claim to help with weight loss but can cause seizures, cardiac arrest, kidney and liver problems, or even death, Consumer Reports wrote. Those include caffeine powder, chaparral, germander, and green tea extract powder.
Danger can depend on health conditions and other factors, like interacting with prescription drugs or over-the-counter medicine.
“Moreover, our experts agree that none of these supplement ingredients provide sufficient health benefits to justify the risk,” Consumer Reports wrote.
Satiereal is included in some weight loss products, including the “Flat Tummy” lollipop promoted by Kim Kardashian. It is an extract from saffron, which has long been promoted to improve mood and menstrual symptoms. Manufacturers say it’s been proven to reduce snacking, too, but that has not been shown definitively.
And appetite suppressants contain no nutrients -- the good stuff we all need from food, like vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Not Just for Weight Loss
In addition to weight loss, sports performance is a big draw for consumers who want an athletic edge. Maybe they eat right and train often, but they want some extra boost.
At best, results vary among people, and scientific reviews are often mixed. Talk to your doctor before trying something you’re not sure about. If you feel better spending money on, say, a protein bar, that might be harmless, if often expensive. But it might not be necessary or even helpful.
The FDA offers these suggestions for being a “savvy supplement” buyer.
- Use noncommercial websites (like those of the FDA and National Institutes of Health) rather than those of sellers.
- If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
- Watch out for claims about “no side effects” and working “better than a prescription drug.”
- “Natural” does not necessarily mean “safe.
A Trainer’s Favorite Myths
Our desire for quick fixes helps myths about fat loss stick around, says Anthony Wilkins, co-owner of Alloy Personal Training for Women near Atlanta. He says clients often ask him about a new product they’ve seen advertised. Maybe they’re told they have to sweat a lot or get sore to prove they got a good workout. The false ads often promote similar falsehoods -- plus those endless products for fat loss teas and lollipops.
Wilkins offers these solutions to persistent myths.
- Muscle does not weigh more than fat. “One pound of fat weighs the exact same as one pound of muscle. That same pound of muscle takes up less space than that pound of fat. This means that you cannot have lost any weight but still be much leaner and drop inches.”
- You can’t “spot reduce” and lose fat exactly where you want. “You can train certain body parts to make them better, but you have absolutely no control over where you lose fat,” Wilkins says. “Focus instead on maintaining a consistent level of strength training and good nutrition habits.”
- Wearing a “waist trainer” will not give you six-pack abs. “It will give you the appearance that you have a slim waist when you’re wearing it,” he says. “But it does not burn fat, build muscle, or anything else health-related.”
Regular exercise and a healthy diet are what you need -- not something that comes in a box or bottle.
A ‘Miracle’ Probably Isn’t
“Many so-called miracle weight loss supplements and foods (including teas and coffees) do not live up to their claims and can cause serious harm,” FDA spokesperson Courtney Rhodes says.
“Products that are not proven safe and effective for those purposes not only defraud consumers of money, but they can also lead to delays in getting proper diagnosis and treatment of a potentially serious condition and can place people at risk for serious injury.”
People shouldn’t use supplements in place of actual food. And, Rhodes says, some have ingredients that “have strong biological effects, and such products may not be safe in all people.”
The FDA says dietary supplements aren’t meant to treat or cure a disease; they can be harmful if used improperly; and they can have unwanted effects before, during, and after surgeries.
Eating Better Is Often the Solution
“For the most part, if an individual eats a wide variety of foods, a nutritional supplement may not be necessary,” says nutritionist Angel Planells, a spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
A multivitamin can help for people who might be missing out on some fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fiber, he says. But it won’t provide the fluid and fiber we get from these foods.
Talk to your doctor about any supplements you consider.
“It takes hard work and effort to take care of our health by eating well, being physically active, taking care of our mental health, and sleeping well for rest and recovery, Planells says.
“Save your money on supplements, and let’s try to eat better.”