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Don't Believe the Magical Claims of That New Weight Loss Program

06/10/2014 12:39 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:23 EDT

The New York Times, in the June 1st Sunday Review, had a report on one of the latest contraptions promising a svelte future. The subject of that article was the LiLa Strawberry Laser.

Its purveyors claim that it takes two inches or more off the waistline in 20 minutes or less. The device, featured on the Rachel Ray Show no less, uses low level laser diode panels belted on the stomach area. Sceptics, including medical experts, have raised eyebrows: they point out that this device emits about as much energy as a hand held laser pointer.

The weight loss-diet industry has long played on the desperate longing of obese people to shed pounds and to keep them off. There has been a large amount of quackery over the years directed at having the consuming public believe that there is a tried-and-true path to slimness. The reality is much different. Studies reveal that something like 95 per cent of obese individuals who can lose weight regain it (and sometimes even more) within a five year period. Repeated, failed attempts at sustainable weight loss may, themselves, cause harm. They certainly don't bolster self image.

Yet the weight loss-diet industry continues to inflate the hopes of those struggling to shed pounds. Deborah Rhode, in her book The Beauty Bias (2010), documents much of this chicanery. Here are just a few of the schemes that she tells us about that have been investigated by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC):

• Siluette Patch--made from seaweed, eliminates fat deposits on contact;

• Fat Seltzer Reduce--dietary supplement eliminates fat without diet or exercise;

• Himalayan Diet Breakthrough--contains Nepalese Mineral Patch; causes as much as 37 pounds of weight loss in eight weeks without diet or exercise.

More established weight loss programs do not make such outlandish claims. Moreover, they, and some new schemes, are making some attempts to shift the emphasis away from a preoccupation with calories toward more nutritiously sound eating generally. But the fact remains that their success is in large part predicated on their customers' failure. They rarely report overall long-term success rates which are mostly dismal. These companies do well when hapless consumers' weights yo-yo from repeated efforts to lose pounds. Their profits largely hinge on failure: the faithful sign up for such plans over and over again.

Legislation protects consumers from fraudulent practices and misleading advertising. Yet in this area and others these laws are often under-enforced. Rhode describes some imaginative efforts by public authorities to warn of scams regarding weight loss and fitness products. Nevertheless, much more could be done. A place to start would be to provide adequate resources to enforce existing provisions. Another strategy might be to strengthen laws to require disclosure and publicizing of overall, long term success rates of diet programs.

Meanwhile preoccupation with weight compels many individuals to give themselves over to any number of schemes that insist that pounds can be shed and kept off, whatever the reality. One of the saddest aspects of these delusions is the children being swept into various regimens. A book published in 2011 about a child losing weight, Maggie Goes on a Diet, attracted a lot of criticism. And with good reason. We should be raising our kids to eat nutritiously and be physically active. We shouldn't be subjecting them to regimes of denial and frustration. But our obsession with pounds and appearance extends even to the very young.

Consumers beware! The road to a sustainable, thinner self is, mostly, long and complicated. Highflying claims of weight loss programs and contraptions should be taken with a pinch (pound?) of salt.

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