From Our 2010 Archives

Young, Overweight Fall Prey to Weight-Loss Spam

By Randy Dotinga
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Jan. 5 (HealthDay News) -- Many computer users lunge for the delete key when they get unsolicited e-mails about weight-loss products. But some respond, and new research suggests that almost one in five young, overweight people have fallen prey to the hard sell that shows up in their spam.

"Believe it or not, a whole bunch of them not only read it, but actually buy these products, which can range from the potentially harmless to the potentially harmful," said study author Joshua Fogel, of Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. "I was shocked. I didn't expect so many people to be buying this stuff."

In May 2007, Fogel and a colleague surveyed 200 students from an undergraduate commuter college in New York City. They report their findings in the January issue of the Southern Medical Journal.

Eighty-eight percent of those with weight problems reported receiving spam that pitched weight-loss products or schemes, compared to 73% of other students. Fogel said this may be because the overweight students visit Web sites about weight loss and end up on marketing databases.

About 42% of overweight students said they'd opened the spam e-mails, and more than 18% said they'd bought products advertised in them. (The numbers were 18.5% and 5%, respectively, for the non-overweight students.)

Stress also seemed to play a role in boosting the risk that an overweight person would buy the products, said Fogel, who is an associate professor of behavioral sciences.

This makes sense to Cynthia Sass, a registered dietitian and author in New York City. "If a person is struggling with their weight, not feeling good about themselves and feeling overwhelmed, the promise of quick-fix weight loss can be very compelling," she said. "I've had clients buy products they know seem bogus because they think, 'What do I have to lose' or 'Who knows, maybe it'll work.'"

But there's plenty of risk. Weight-loss dietary supplements can be dangerous, Sass said. "Consumers should know that these products are not required to be proven safe or effective before they're released to the market and they may contain ingredients -- even natural ones -- that can raise blood pressure to dangerous levels, even in healthy, young adults, or cause other side effects such as heart palpitations," she explained.

Detoxification products can also spell trouble by causing suppressed immunity and a loss of muscle mass along with fatigue, irritability and mood swings, she said.

The next step, Fogel said, is to figure out what overweight people are buying from spam distributors and whether they're using the products regularly.

He suggested that doctors take time to ask overweight patients if they're buying weight-loss products. "If they say they don't buy it, that's fine, and you go on to the next question. If they do, you can ask, 'Can you share what you bought and why you bought it?'"

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SOURCES: Joshua Fogel, Ph.D., associate professor, behavioral sciences, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York; Cynthia Sass, M.P.H., R.D., registered dietitian and author, New York City; January 2010 Southern Medical Journal