The Skinny on Diet Scams

Experts weigh in on the top 5 diet scams and how to avoid them

By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

"Lose 30 pounds in 30 days!"
"Block the absorption of fat, carbs, and calories with this pill!"
"Wear this and watch the pounds melt away."

Whether you're flipping through a magazine, scanning the aisles of a health store, or watching late-night television, you're bound to see slogans like these touting the latest and greatest product designed to help YOU lose weight.

But chances are the only thing you'll lose by purchasing the latest "miracle diet product" is money. Diet scams are big business with sellers vying for their share of the nearly $35 billion that Americans spend each year on weight loss products and programs.

Top Diet Scams

Experts say roughly the same top five diet scams seem to keep resurfacing every few years, each time with a shiny new marketing gimmick. But they're all based on the same bad science.

Those top five diet scams include:

  • Metabolism-boosting pills based on herbal ingredients
  • Fat- and carb-blocking pills
  • Herbal weight loss teas
  • Diet patches, jewelry, or other products worn on the body
  • Body wraps or "slim suits"

"There have always been quack weight loss schemes out there because nobody ever believes that you can't lose weight faster than you gained it," says registered dietician Althea Zanecosky.

"It maybe took two years for them to gain those 15 pounds, but they want to lose it in two weeks."

A more realistic timetable for lasting weight loss is to lose about a pound or two a week, says Zanecosky.

Nonetheless, researchers say diet scams continue to flourish, thanks in part to the law of supply and demand as a growing number of Americans find themselves overweight and looking for an easier way to lose it.

In addition, many of the most popular diet scams are based on herbal ingredients, which are not regulated as drugs by the FDA. Therefore, the weight loss claims are not evaluated for accuracy by the FDA.

In fact, a recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report found that more than half of the weight-loss ads that ran in 2001 made at least one false or unsubstantiated claim.

"Now, more and more people seem to feel that there is some magic compound or practice, and there really isn't," Zanecosky tells WebMD. "Nobody gets the whistle blown on them unless someone dies or has something really awful happen to them."

Even when diet scams don't prove dangerous, experts say relying on pills, patches, creams, and other gadgets to lose weight keeps millions of people from seeking weight loss programs that could really help them lose weight and reduce their risk of disease.

"Most people need something more than a pill or diet aid to get them past the behaviors that got them into trouble in the first place. These products lead people to believe that there is a product that can fix the problem, and 100% of the time there isn't a product that can fix the problem," says Zanecosky.

1. Metabolism-boosting/calorie-burning pills

At the top of the list of diet scams are pills based on herbal ingredients that promise to boost your metabolism and help you burn calories or fat faster.

"New herbs always seem to percolate to the top as potential diet aids, as one leaves another shows up because the FDA doesn't monitor herbs," says Zanecosky. "Most of time they are just ineffective; once in a while they are dangerous."

Two recent examples of herbal diet pills that caught the attention of the FDA as dangerous are ephedra and kava (Piper methysticum, also known as kava kava).

Until recently, ephedra was found in many herbal dietary supplements for weight loss, but in February 2004, the FDA banned the sale of ephedra in any dietary supplement in the U.S. due to the risk of illness or injury. The herb is a close chemical cousin of methamphetamine or speed and can cause high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, insomnia, nervousness, tremors, seizures, heart attacks, strokes, and even death.

Kava is a plant found in the islands of the South Pacific. Supplements containing the herbal ingredient are often promoted for relaxation as well as weight loss. But the FDA issued a warning in 2002 that use of supplements containing kava has been linked to severe liver injury.

2. Fat- and carb-blocking pills

Pills that claim to block your body's absorption of fat and more recently carbohydrates are also commonly-sold diet scams.

"If there were an "oldie but goodie" diet scam prize would likely go to body wraps."

Even if these fat and carb blockers worked as they say they do, researchers say the effects can be dangerous if not just plain unpleasant.