What Supplement Companies Don’t Want You to Know: Operation Big, Fat Lie

Do you find it difficult to keep up with trendy super-ingredients? It seems like every year, weight-loss supplements tout a hot, new discovery as the next best thing to help dieters reach their weight loss goals. Just when we thought the latest trend was raspberry ketone, along came another weight loss miracle. Today? It’s green tea. Tomorrow? Who knows!

Overzealous companies often introduce new super-ingredients (like green tea) as “miracles,” promising that they give “unprecedented results.” Or, if they sound exotic enough, the next big ingredient might instead be touted as an ancient, homeopathic secret, just recently discovered by Western medicine.

But, does each new ingredient really out-perform the last?

If you’ve ever struggled with your weight, you might have considered one of the many weight loss supplements available—each promising to help you effortlessly shed pounds better than before.

And you’re not alone! At least 12% of Americans have tried supplements in an attempt to control their weight.

To help you make better decisions in the supplement section, we’d like to lift the curtain and expose a little of not why the weight loss industry markets the way they do.

Take This Pill & Lose Seven Pounds Overnight!

As shoppers are exposed to more and more options, they become increasingly educated—and careful with their money. Advertisers call this “market sophistication.”

When weight loss pills first hit the market (as early as the late 1800s), companies didn’t have to say anything more than “Take this pill, and you’ll lose weight!” to see their supplements, then called diet pills, fly off the shelves.

But, as consumers were exposed to more and more advertisements and offers, they began to get choosy. To stay ahead of their competitors, companies had to make even bigger claims.

Related: Can Drinking Green Tea Really Help You Detox & Lose Weight?

Promises of “Take this pill and lose seven pounds” turned into, “Take this pill and lose seven pounds in three days.” And even, “Take this pill and lose seven pounds overnight, while still enjoying all your favorite foods!”

On and on it went, until companies found themselves running out of options to one-up each other. Eventually, their claims of delivering overnight weight loss-results became practically unbelievable.

The New Way to Keep Shoppers Spending

The old way of marketing weight loss supplements lost its potency as shoppers became too sophisticated to believe overblown claims. This left brands trying to think of a new way to catch your attention.

Then, a man named Eugene Schwartz came up with an idea: To focus on the experience a product offers—not just on the results—to make a specific product resonate with authority.

Coined the “unique mechanism,” brands shifted to this advertising angle to tempt shoppers with how a supplement works, not just how fast or how much you could lose. Popular mechanism claims include:

  • Making your brain think that you’re full
  • Reducing your appetite—in minutes
  • Melting fat away or speeding up your metabolic rate
  • Swelling your stomach with water, also to make you feel full

Most recently, supplement companies have shifted their focus to the promise of stopping fat absorption.

The notion of a "fat blocker" pill may sound like a boon to those who are trying to lose weight. The idea that a simple supplement could keep your body from absorbing calories in the food you eat sounds suspiciously like a magic pill that makes you skinny while you pig out.

An example is diet pill brand Calorese, which claims to “bind with fats from food to reduce up to 500 calories per day.” And last year, even humble seaweed was elevated as the hot, new way for dieters to enjoy their cake without guilt.

“But wait,” you might be asking. “Isn’t it possible that these bold, new claims are the result of advances in weight loss medicine?”

Weight Loss Supplements Vs. Drugs

If you’re familiar with our anti-aging articles, you may have read about the difference between how cosmetics and drugs are regulated by the government: namely, that cosmetics companies cannot make claims that their products will change the structure of your skin.

The distinction is an important one. The FDA puts drugs through clinical trials to test them out. These tests have to show they are safe and will do what they’re supposed to—all of which must happen before a product becomes available to consumers.

However supplements containing herbs and vitamins are treated like food, so they don't have to be tested. Instead, weight loss supplements are self-regulated by their manufacturers. This means that the same companies who profit from each purchase are in charge of monitoring their supplement’s safety and effectiveness.

But, what about all those clinical trials you see advertised?

The truth is that not all studies are created equal. As such, thousands of less-than-stellar companies knowingly use highly flawed clinical studies to support their otherwise absurd claims and to sell more of their products.

Check out how companies mislead and misinform: Think that Clinical Study is Legit? 4 Steps for Identifying Fake Science

Or take a look at this WebMD article, detailing an extensive list of current supplement ingredients and their (lack of) effectiveness.

Bottom Line? Don’t Risk Your Money or Health on Bogus Weight Loss Products

There’s very little scientific evidence that pills or supplements alone will cause sustained, meaningful weight loss.

Yet, desperation to shed extra pounds causes many of us to be more prone to believing false claims. But this can potentially harm more than just your wallet, as turning to ineffective weight loss supplements can deter those struggling with their weight from making tough-but-meaningful changes.

To help consumers identify deceptive weight-loss advertising, the Federal Trade Commission has launched the “Weight Loss Challenge,” a video quiz created in hopes of increasing awareness about weight loss supplement fraud.

What claims does the FTC identify as false?

According to the FTC, any dietary supplement, herbal remedy, over-the-counter drug, patch, cream, or other product available without a prescription, which claims any of the following, should sound your “scam alarm:”

  • Causes weight loss of two pounds or more a week for a month or more, without dieting or exercise
  • Causes substantial weight loss, no matter what or how much the consumer eats
  • Causes permanent weight loss, even after the consumer stops using the product
  • Blocks the absorption of fat or calories to enable consumers to lose substantial weight
  • Safely enables consumers to lose more than three pounds per week for more than four weeks
  • Causes substantial weight loss for all users
  • Causes substantial weight loss by wearing a product on the body or rubbing it into the skin

Bottom line? Don’t simply believe marketing! Just because you saw it a television show, on a website, or in print doesn’t mean it’s true. Even references to clinical trials can be misleading.

What You Should Do When You’re Struggling With Extra Weight

Beware of big promises. Don’t trust products that promise to help you lose weight rapidly or that guarantee weight loss without lifestyle changes that include diet and exercise.

And remember that, beyond healthy eating and exercise, taking even “natural” supplements comes with risks. Your best bet when attempting any changes is to check with your doctor to find a weight loss program that can work for you.

Ready to shed some pounds the healthy way? While there's no magic bullet for weight loss, there are steps you can take to lose weight, safely and for good, while increasing your health.

The common sense advice to "eat less, move more," isn't entirely correct. It matters what you eat.

Related: Forget Diet Pills—Lose Weight by Changing Your Habits

While this list is by no means complete, here are a few important steps to healthfully losing—and keeping off—any extra pounds:

  1. Eat a healthy breakfast every morning. Eating breakfast revs up your metabolism. If you skip breakfast you're likely to eat more calories by binging later in the day. In a study of people who lost weight and kept it off for more than five years, one major thing they all did was eat breakfast. But Pop-tarts, donuts and Hot Pockets don't cut it. Cooked oatmeal, whole grain cereals, whole grain breads, eggs and tofu with a salad are all healthy choices.
  2. Shrink your lunch and dinner plates. If you and your family eat off a plate larger than ten inches, replace them with plates that are nine or ten inches in diameter. We tend to eat what's in front of us. Using smaller plates there's less food in front of you to eat.
  3. Keep tempting foods out of the house. Stock your fridge and pantry with healthy foods and you're creating an environment that will help make you successful. Enjoy treats occasionally when you're out.
  4. Cut down on carbs. Refined carbohydrates (cake, candy, cookies, muffins, scones, cupcakes, soda, fruit juice, syrups, chips, and most supermarket breads) you don't burn turn into fat. Even foods like fruit yogurt and many breakfast cereals have lots of added sugar. Replace fruity yogurts with Greek plain yogurt, choose high-fiber, lower carb cereal and add small amounts of healthy fat to your meals with avocado slices, unsalted nuts, seeds and olive oil.
  5. Let yourself enjoy less healthy foods now and then. In small portions! Unless there's a medical reason not to do so, not letting yourself eat something you love may make you feel deprived and frustrated and subvert your efforts to eat well.

Finally, remember to be kind to yourself during your efforts. The more you pat yourself on the back for what you're doing well, the more energy you'll have to keep doing it.

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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