Sallie Elizabeth has always had large breasts and a big bottom, and she has accepted them as part of her genetic makeup. But when cellulite appeared in the back of her upper leg, she "freaked out" and resolved to do something about it.
A friend recommended endermologie, a deep massage treatment using a motorized device with two adjustable rollers and controlled suction. The device is said to improve the look of cellulite by gently folding and unfolding the skin for smooth and regulated deep-tissue movement.
The cellulite is "less visible," she says, noting her smoother, softer skin. "I feel healthier. My circulation has improved ... and I feel more relaxed."
To keep up the effects, the 20-something model visits Smooth Synergy, a cosmedical spa in Manhattan, once or twice a week for 35-minute sessions with the endermologie machine and a technician.
Elizabeth may be enjoying her cellulite-busting experience, but experts raise eyebrows at many tools or treatments purported to reduce the appearance of cellulite, trim fat in specific areas, shed pounds, or build muscle -- particularly if they claim to replace exercise and good nutrition.
"They're a waste of money," says Richard Cotton, a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise and chief exercise physiologist for myexerciseplan.com.
If that is the case, then a sizeable chunk of currency could be going down the drain. According to a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) weight loss advertising trend report, in the year 2000 alone, consumers spent an estimated $34.7 billion on weight-loss products and programs.
While it is not known how much of that accounts for sales of unproven or fraudulent merchandise, an FTC study of weight loss ads from different media shows that nearly 40% of ads make at least one false claim, and an additional 15% make at least one claim that is very likely false, or lacks proof.
To add to the number soup: Results from a national health survey conducted between 1999 and 2000 indicate that more than six out of every 10 Americans are overweight or obese, a figure that has increased dramatically in recent years.
Another recent survey that looked at the attitudes of Americans adults toward their own weight found that despite the fact that two-thirds of men were considered overweight, only about half (51%) said they wanted to lose weight versus 68% of women who said they wanted to lose weight.
Put it all together and there are arguably more people wanting to use weight loss products, and according to the government's trend report, the "marketplace has responded with a proliferating array of products and services, many promising miraculous, quick-fix remedies."
There are, indeed, numerous therapies, including weight loss programs and dietary supplements. Then there are the popular treadmills, bun and ab rollers, the body bow, and bun and thigh max.
For this piece, however, WebMD looked only into passive exercise devices such as electrical muscle stimulators and toning tables, cellulite reduction therapies, and gels, creams, eyeglasses, earrings and similar doodads marketed for weight loss, and muscle-building.
Granted, not all remedies may be the same, but health professionals say far too many of them can't be trusted.
Passive Weight Loss
To Elizabeth's credit, she tries to eat right, jog, do Pilates, and perform squats to supplement her endermologie sessions. In fact, good nutrition and regular physical activity are recommended with the treatment.
However, many weight loss, cellulite-busting, and muscle-building products promise results without having to do too much.
"It's the idea that an individual can get to the body size they want without any increase in physical activity or without any change in eating," says Jennifer Anderson, PhD, RD, professor and extension specialist at Colorado State University's department of food science and human nutrition.
"In some instances, it's a total gimmick," says Anderson. "In other instances, it will reduce a lot of water weight quickly, but it's never going to change eating behaviors, activity levels, and make that the key to their lifestyle."
This quick water weight loss never leads to real, long-term weight loss, says Anderson, noting that the only weight loss and toning plan that works involves eating well and moving your body.
Furthermore, she says there is no proof that cellulite can be massaged away or taken out by injections of vitamins, special underwear, or use of other gizmos. To get rid of the dimpled fat, weight must be shed, and skin made firmer by doing strength training.
Francie M. Berg, a licensed nutritionist, and founder of the Healthy Weight Network, agrees. "If you want to tone your body or become more fit, you need to do the work. It's not lying on a table, and having [a gadget] lift your feet," she says referring to no-effort toning tables, beds, and machines.
The value of toning and weight loss equipment depends on how much work you can get a person to do to burn energy, says Berg, pointing out that when people see desired results with normally passive devices and treatments, it's usually because they've also made efforts to eat well or exercise.
Truth With a Twist
Berg coordinates the Task Force on Weight Loss Abuse for the National Council Against Health Fraud, which gives out annual Slim Chance Awards to selected weight loss products.
This year's "worst gimmick" prize went out to MagnaSlim, which claims to relieve stress and its byproduct of overeating by placing magnets and a magnetized solution at specific acupuncture points. The magnet at the acupressure point would supposedly improve cell function, restore Chi (life force energy), and give a person more control over what they put in their mouths.
Weight loss promoters have long cashed in on the concept of acupressure and magnetic therapy for weight loss, even though there is no proof it works, says Berg. Items using similar concepts on the market include magnetic weight-loss earrings, adhesives, beads, and seeds.
It is apparently not uncommon for manufacturers to piggyback on ideas and studies that may have genuine validity, and twist them for commercial purposes.
Another example would be the electrical muscle stimulators (EMS) promoted to do anything from slough off weight to tone muscle to form six-pack abs. Some ads claim this is possible without exercise.
Health experts scoff at such an idea, but do say EMS is a valuable tool for physical therapy. "There are times when that really helps," says Anderson, pointing to rehabilitation programs for people with physical injuries or stroke-related debilitation.
"The problem I have with it is if it's being marketed as muscle stimulation, and that will help you tone up and lose weight," says Anderson. "Well, it probably will help you tone a little bit, but it shouldn't take place of being more active and looking at how many calories we put in our mouth each day."
Gad Alon, PhD, associate professor in the department of physical therapy and rehabilitation science at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, has studied the effects of EMS, and many promoters often refer to his research in peddling their wares.
He says many of these marketers misuse his work, saying things like, "Seven physicians at the University of Maryland have concluded that you may never have to do sit-ups again."
First of all, says Alon, there were no physicians present for the studies; he and his students conducted the studies, and they never addressed the topic of weight loss.
Alon warns, though, that some EMS devices in the market might not have the proper specifications to work properly. He says they may use electrodes that do not have good conductivity, or some may be too small to cover large muscle areas.
The Damage and What to Do About It
Some of the weight loss gadgets may seem too good to be true, yet even smart people fall for them. Why are people so willing to believe these quick and easy schemes?
"Hope springs eternal," says Edward Abramson, PhD, a clinical psychologist, and author of Emotional Eating: What You Need to Know Before Starting Another Diet. He says people are always looking for a shortcut, especially for difficult, ongoing problems.
Besides losing money on bunk products, however, consumers could get their hopes dashed. Abramson says repeated disappointments with weight loss could undermine a person's overall sense of well-being. He says some people could even internalize blame to a point that could lead to eating disorders.
Berg adds that false weight loss systems and goods could also prevent people from seeking real treatment, interfere with responsible programs that do work, and promote distrust of the medical community.
To avoid falling prey to such schemes, the FDA says consumers should be particularly skeptical of claims containing words like easy, effortless, guaranteed, miraculous, magical, breakthrough, new discovery, mysterious, exotic, secret, exclusive, and ancient.
The experts interviewed by WebMD also recommend concentrating on weight-management strategies that are proven to work, such as incorporating a balanced diet with reduced calories with a regular exercise regimen. Some tips include:
- Eat more fruits and vegetables. Foods high in fiber such as whole grain breads, fruit, and cereal can help you feel full longer.
- Exercise. Get 30 minutes of physical activity a day even if you must split it in 10-minute increments throughout the day. Try to exercise on most days of the week; choose an activity you enjoy. Start slowly and then add more days as tolerated.
- Be accepting. Accept your body the way it is.
- Maintain. Instead of having a goal to lose weight, think of not gaining it, says Anderson.
- Be aware of your mind and body while you exercise. Cotton says it helps not to read magazines or watch TV while working out. "When you're present, you're better able to make decisions about your habits ... and your true needs," he says.