10 things the weight-loss industry won’t tell you «
Currently, more than one in three American adults over 20 is obese — up from roughly one in four 20 years ago. And millions of other people are currently carrying more weight than they’d like this time of year, thanks to the annual holiday overeating ritual.
Many Americans experience not only health problems but also guilt and shame over these added pounds. And that’s why weight loss — an industry of diet companies, weight-loss supplement manufacturers, diet book authors and obesity doctors — is big business. Companies that focus on weight-loss programs (think Nutrisystem and Weight Watchers) raked in $2.4 billion last year; sales of supplements — many of which promise weight loss — add as much as $14 billion. And doctors now perform hundreds of thousands of bariatric surgeries a year to help patients lose weight.
Enlarge Image The bottom line: For many, our extra weight is a source of cash. And to get that cash, some companies are willing to stretch the truth of what their products will do.
According to the most recent data from the Federal Trade Commission, roughly 15% of weight loss ads contain false claims or false information. Already this year, the FTC has fined three companies about $34 million over deceptive advertising claims. Among the cited companies is the marketer of Sensa, a product that consumers sprinkled on their food to help them lose weight, which will pay $26.5 million to settle charges of false-advertising because, according to the FTC, the company “deceived consumers with unfounded weight loss claims and misleading endorsements.” (Sensa says that “the settlement includes no admission of wrongful conduct.”)
“There is little evidence that pills and supplements can help you lose a lot of weight,” says Mary Engle, the director of the advertising practices division at the FTC.
What’s more, some of the biggest players in the industry have accused each other of deception. In 2010, Weight Watchers (the largest provider of weight loss services in the U.S., with more than 43% market share) sued Jenny Craig in U.S. District Court in New York over its ads that said that “Jenny Craig clients lost, on average, over twice as much weight as those on the largest weight-loss program.” Weight Watchers claimed that no major clinical trial was done that proved this statement and that those assertions were false and misleading. The two companies reached a settlement: Jenny Craig, though it admitted no wrongdoing, agreed to never again publish, broadcast or disseminate the ad in any form. In a statement issued at the time, Jenny Craig said, “We challenge Weight Watchers to compete directly with us in a head-to-head clinical trial.”
To be sure, the majority of weight-loss ads are relatively honest, and there are some diet supplements that work. Still, the amount of misinformation in this industry is high, experts say. Engle says that to avoid fraudulent weight-loss products, consumers should be on the lookout for labels that promise quick action (like losing 10 pounds in 10 days), and labels that use words like “guaranteed” or “scientific breakthrough.” She also cautions against using creams or patches that promise to help with weight loss.