Happy Monday, Science Babe Shills! While I’m busy dealing with Petco’s insistence on selling pet medications with alcohol in them, my friend James Fell was kind enough to step in as a guest blogger.
Avoiding Weight Loss Snake Oil
By James S. Fell
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.
-Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate in physics
Skepticism can make you strong.
That’s the purpose of this article; to make you skeptical of all things weight loss. It’s a dirty, dirty industry full of much male bovine droppings.
I am a shovel.
Sex sells slimness
If you have an Internet connection and poor impulse control, you know why Kim Kardashian is famous. One hint: It’s not for her knowledge of pharmacology. This is why I was surprised to see her on 20/20 talking about QuickTrim diet pills, which she and her sisters endorse. “We helped formulate this,” she said.
Really? And that’s a selling point?
And it wasn’t just diet pills. She also flogged Skechers Shape-Ups – the shoes that allegedly burn extra calories and tone your butt. By the way, I did an exposé for my Chatelaine.com column on the bogus marketing claims of those shoes long before Skechers agreed to pay $40 million to settle a class action lawsuit for false advertising.1 Go me.
Kim also jumped on the wheat-hating bandwagon, posting a lingerie-clad photo online to extol the virtues of her gluten-free lifestyle. However, there was some egg on that botoxed face when it was pointed out the photo was a pre-fad-diet two years old.2
If you want to know how to achieve “celebrity” by leaking a sex tape, Kim is the person to look to for such an education. When it comes to the intricacies of sustainable weight loss for the population at large, however, I am suspicious of her qualifications.
Welcome to Weight Loss Inc., where serpent lubrication sells like hotcakes.
And what about Jillian Michaels, of the abysmal train-wreck fat-shaming TV game show The Biggest Loser? In my Los Angeles Times column I busted her “lose up to 5 pounds a week” weight loss claim on her kettlebell DVD wide open.3 Using, you know, math.
By the way, that wasn’t the first time she’d claimed you could lose up to 5 pounds a week on one of her DVDs. She had the same claim on her yoga DVD. You could lose almost a pound a day doing yoga. That’s right, yoga. In other news, Snooki has been nominated for a Nobel in literature for A Shore Thing.
(On the subject of Snooki, did you know she flogged a diet pill called Zantrex-3, which contains a near meth-loading of caffeine?)4
Let’s get one thing straight: The only people who can lose a pound a day are the ones who start off weighing as much as a Smart Car and are cattle-prodded by a team of sadists through a massive shift in lifestyle involving large amounts of exercise and significant dietary restriction. In other words: not you. And just because such people can lose weight that fast doesn’t mean they should. And the leaner you get, the harder it becomes to lose the final pounds to reveal a flat belly or perhaps see their abs.
And yet the landscape abounds with quick and easy ways to drop the flab.
Go to the diet section of any bookstore and you’ll see what I mean. I did not have to look hard to find these examples of fat-burning miracles:
“Drop up to 8 lbs in just 3 days!” – Cover of The Belly Melt Diet, from the editors of Prevention. This book claims MUFAs – monounsaturated fatty acids – have some kind of magic powers to, I don’t know, change the molecular structure of belly fat and transport it to a parallel dimension, or something. Either that or the book’s pages are infected with amoebic dysentery. That’s the only way I know to lose 8 pounds in 3 days.
“Drop up to 14 lbs in the first 14 days” – From The Belly Fat Cure™ Fast Track, by Jorge Cruise. You apparently achieve this amazingly rapid weight loss by discovering the “Ultimate Carb Swap™.” That’s two trademark symbols on one cover. Must be because of all the extra awesome Jorge brings with that sexy name of his.
By the way, they really like those words “Up to,” don’t they? It’s like their weight-loss-claim-get out-of-jail-free-card. Hey, I GUARANTEE THAT YOU CAN LOSE UP TO ONE HUNDRED POUNDS THIS WEEK! See? I just made an outrageous promise and I can totally get away with it because I included “up to.”
And that’s not all.
If Jorge’s “Fast Track” isn’t fast enough, right next to it was his book The Belly Fat Cure™ (Again) Sugar & Carb Counter. It wants you to, “Discover which foods will melt up to (those words again) 9 lbs. this week.” Wait, so this one doesn’t say “fast track,” but it causes faster weight loss than the one that says “fast track?” I’m confused.
So are people who went to high school with Jorge, which might not be his sexy name after all. Back then his name was George Maurer.5 Or was it Mauier?6 I emailed him a couple of times to ask which was the correct spelling, as well as to ask if the reason he changed it was because he thought the newer, sexier version would sell more books. Or is he in the witness protection program? He never got back to me. Anyway, I doubt it’s witness protection, because this guy likes going on Oprah and Dr. Oz, which isn’t what I call low profile. With Oprah and Oz’s help George – or Jorge…whatever – has sold over 6 million books and spent a lot of time on the New York Times bestseller’s list.
And just in case you don’t read the weight loss claim in the corner, marketers have got you covered right there in the title now with 10 Pounds in 10 Days by another New York Times bestselling author, Jackie Warner. The subtitle is The Secret Celebrity Program for Losing Weight Fast. I almost had an aneurysm from all those advertising buzzwords.
Listen to the doctor?
And what about people with M.D. after their name? Must be trustworthy, right?
Dr. Mike Moreno’s The 17-Day Diet has made it’s share of outlandish weight loss claims. It’s an example of “As seen on Dr. Phil.” I watched the promotional video for the book where Dr. Moreno said 17 days is, “a time frame in which your body can achieve weight loss in a healthy way, in a sustainable way.”7 In what universe? Dropping huge amounts of weight in 17 days is not healthy and not sustainable. In the video, “Rebecca” claims to have lost 10 pounds in 17 days. This could be believable if she was morbidly obese, but she isn’t. But then there was “Michelle,” who upped the ante by claiming 15 pounds lost in 20 days. Like Rebecca, there is no way she qualified as morbidly obese to begin with. That kind of rapid weight loss is feasible, if not necessarily advisable, for people at least 150-pounds overweight, but these women weren’t even close.
Oh, and the exercise component? Dr. Moreno’s book comes with a – wait for it – “17-Minute Workout.” If you do the 17-minute workout 17 times a day the weight loss claims become achievable. And guess what? New York Times bestseller, baby! Let’s milk these 17 days for all they’re worth and do up another book quick about a 17-day plan to stop aging. It worked for that “4 Hour” guy and he was just as bad at math.8 Hooray for capitalism!
And there is also that show about doctors that have all those doctors on it. Except for those couple of months that they also had Jillian Michaels on it. Then it became a show with a bunch of doctors and some person who finished high school. What was that show called again? It had some Dr. Travis Stork on it, and he’s got a weight loss book too called The Lean Belly Prescription. The subtitle makes claims of “fast and foolproof” weight loss. First off, an M.D. should know that there is no way to decide where your body loses fat from, as “lean belly prescription” implies. Your body decides where it loses fat first and last. You have zero control over this process. Second, he’s pushing the word weight loss marketers love: “fast.” (And don’t get me started on “foolproof.”)
In Dr. Stork’s defense, this book is a “prescription,” and he’s a doctor. Maybe the publishers just couldn’t read his handwriting.
Everyone wants to be a hare
I mean, who wants to lose weight slow? That’s lame. It’s got to be fast, dammit! Guess what happens when I Google “Lose weight fast”? I get almost 10 million results and ads that include words like “magic,” “miracle,” and “Dr. Oz.” Then I Google “lose weight slow” and get only 13,000 pages (and no ads), and most talk about things like “How to lose weight with a slow metabolism.” Or, “To lose weight, slow your eating.” Not the same thing.
Losing weight fast doesn’t happen except in cases of extreme obesity, but everyone – even if they are only a little overweight – really wants it to be true. And the weight loss marketers take that desire and warp it, package it up all pretty, and ram it down your throat via a massive deluge of advertising/brainwashing that permeates our society via every possible media outlet.
The Land of Oz
And what about good old Dr. Oz? There is no one weight loss claim to point a finger at; there are forty-eleven million of them. Seriously, just go into a grocery store and look at the magazine rack for his face and seek out the accompanying ridiculous weight loss claim. Then go in next week and do it again and see another outlandish claim, and then do it again the week after that, and the week after that …
Just to be clear, we’re talking about FAT loss here. I mean, you can achieve results like these via water loss (low-carb dieting will do that, by the way), but what’s the point of just losing water? It comes right back.
The photographic evidence
Sometimes instead of weight loss numbers, they use pictures. Remember Body for Life by Bill Phillips, possibly the bestselling “get in shape” book of all time? It was plastered with hippo to hottie imagery designed to titillate the visual cortex. Sure, the book could be interpreted as a brochure for Phillips’ EAS supplement company (which he has since sold), but were the body transformations at least realistic?
Not according to Dr. Daniel Kirschenbaum, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern Medical School who said to Health in 2002 of Phillips ability to motivate such transformations: “He’s just making a lot of this stuff up. It’s a lot of marketing and mumbo jumbo. I don’t think those kinds of transformations are likely in 12 weeks.”9
Dr. Kirschenbaum’s skepticism is well founded. In a rare interview with Bill Phillips, Outside Magazine referenced the results from the 2002 Body for Life contest that revealed of the 750,000 people who requested the challenge kits, only five percent even finished the 12-week program.10 And of those five percent, only the best of the best had their before and after photos profiled. I believe that qualifies for the disclaimer of “Results not typical.” Phillips has never granted my request for an interview.
And many magazines use nefarious tactics to doctor before and after photos. I saw a video by documentary filmmaker Peter Czerwinski who showed how to do amazing before and after photos in reverse order. He got himself dehydrated and oily for the “after” shot first while sucking his gut in. They he spent five hours chugging soda and eating high salt snacks and thrust his gut out for the “before” picture. The difference was astounding.11
And the 2008 documentary about anabolic steroids called Bigger, Stronger, Faster provides additional information about how weight loss before and after images in magazines are Photoshopped to lop off dozens of pounds with the sweep of a mouse.
The fitness model casting call
The people in the Bowflex commercials sure are pretty.
If you have any doubt that these models did not get their muscularly sculpted hairless physiques using a Bowflex and its patented Power Something Technology, then Google “Bowflex casting” and you’ll find talent agencies looking for ultra-lean gym rats with colored contact lenses to hock this soon-to-be coat rack for three easy payments of way too much money.
Allegedly, this “home gym” is a “total-body solution,” as if your body were some kind of math problem in need of solving. Actually, being fat is a math problem, but unfortunately Bowflex’s marketing department doesn’t understand simple addition and subtraction.
According to the commercials, Bowflex is the ultimate tool for fat loss and muscle building, and you can sculpt an amazing body losing lots of fat in “as little as 20 minutes, three times a week!” You’ll be able to say things like “I’m not on a diet. I’m on a Bowflex.” Or, “I gave all my fat clothes to my fat friends.” (Speaking of which, we’re sure your friends will really appreciate you calling them fat. When you order a Bowflex, does it come with new friends too?)
Using Bowflex’s patented “Power Rod® Technology” is like trying to lift weights while having an epileptic seizure and simultaneously shooting meth into your eyeballs. Besides having a history of being unsafe and with its parent corporation (Nautilus Inc.) being fined by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, many bodybuilding discussion boards contain complaints about the machine’s limiting and unnatural feeling.
As a guy with almost two decades experience with free weights, I decided to give the Bowflex a try myself and instantly hated it. So I kept trying for another 15 minutes to see if it grew on me, and the only thing that grew was a desire to douse the machine in napalm and hurl it into an active volcano.
In other words, I didn’t like it. Free weights provide a much more natural movement for building functional strength.
Beyond the fact that you would hate this machine and it would start gathering dust and errant clothing in short order, the marketers of Bowflex are just really bad at math. While they often use models to flog the products, they do have the odd real person who says he or she owes his or her new physique to the Bowflex.
So let’s take the example of one such real-life customer, the sunken-chested bald guy who says he’s “living the dream” and states that he lost 26 pounds in 10 weeks using Bowflex.
Using math so simple even a marketing guy with an MBA can do it (I know, because I’ve got one), let’s check those figures:
- A pound of fat contains 3,500 calories.
- Twenty-six pounds of fat over 10 weeks means losing 2.6 pounds per week average. That works out to 9,100 calories.
- The commercial’s claim of “twenty minutes, three times a week” on the Bowflex equals one hour of exercise each week. In one hour of intense weight training, a 220-pound man can expect to burn approximately 600 calories. However, considering that he’d burn 100 just sitting on his couch, the number of extra calories burned is only 500.
- There is no mention of dietary restriction, and in one commercial a model asserts, “I’m not on a diet, I’m on a Bowflex.”
- Therefore, simply being so cool as to own a Bowflex will miraculously cause you to burn an additional 8,600 calories each week.
That’s just the beginning. Did you hear about the “calorie-burning underpants?” Really, there is such a thing.
And what about that thing that looks like it trains you to be a better masturbator? The jiggling dumbbell called the Shake Weight? I have a feeling many of those six million units were purchased as gag gifts for bridal showers. One question I have about them is, why is the black one twice the size of the white one?
And don’t forget about all the pills, the powders, the super foods and the unpronounceable foods. The tea extracts and the ab-shocker belts. The wraps and the creams. The infomercial products and the celebrity endorsements …
I even saw a soap that said it would shrink cellulite. Soap? I wonder what it would have done for my last car. In 2010 we had an end-of-days type hail storm and my poor Acura got hammered like Lindsay Lohan without her court-ordered blood-alcohol anklet. Until recently I drove a car that looked like it had cellulite. I called her Snooki.
Addicted to shopping?
It’s all about money, and we keep on a spendin’. If you believe in quick-fix miracle cures for getting in shape, you’re not alone. In 2007 the Federal Trade Commission launched a massive survey of consumer fraud in the U.S. and found people were more likely to be taken in by a weight loss scam than any other type of fraud. It’s not all “bank inspectors” and pyramid schemes; in 2006 fraudsters scammed millions of Americans wanting to lose weight by selling pills, powders, machines, wraps, creams and even “weight loss earrings.” Huh.
Why do we keep giving fraudsters all this money? I asked Skeptics Society founder Michael Shermer.
“It’s called the optimism bias,” Shermer told me. “There are just enough success stories – either real or imagined – that people believe they will be the one who is successful.” And they buy again and again because they have a poor memory for failure. What’s more, Shermer asserts, dialing that 1-800 number, credit card in hand, to buy the latest machine, pill or weight loss promise elicits a dopamine surge that reinforces the behavior. You get a rush from buying this crap.
Stupid brain, getting me high off stuff that’s bad for me.
Note that I am a big fan of throwing money at fitness and weight loss, but spend it wisely. My bicycle is a few mortgage payments, and I consider that a wise investment.
When it comes to burning fat, calories are all that matter. For the average person, losing a pound a day requires running a marathon every day on a miniscule amount of food. That is neither reasonable nor sustainable.
THE LAW OF WEIGHT LOSS
It’s real simple. If you have a caloric deficit, you lose weight. If calories are positive, you gain weight. Energy balance is a direct representation of the first law of thermodynamics, the one that says energy can neither be created nor destroyed. We’re not talking about a hypothesis here, or even a theory, but a physical LAW OF THE UNIVERSE. Ever hear of the law of gravity? A law is something scientists are so damn sure of there is no disputing it. You can’t deny the first law of thermodynamics any more than you can deny the fact that if you jump out of a high-flying airplane without a parachute, gravity will not be your friend. (Note to fans of The Secret: The “Law of Attraction” is not a real scientific law.)
And yes, I do know there are bestselling authors who question this law. They present themselves as “controversial.” They assert that years of accepted science is wrong. Let me ask you a question: The next time you get into an airplane, would you rather it was designed, built and tested in a scientifically proven manner, or a controversial one?
I thought so.
Excess fat can’t be blamed on insulin, carbohydrates or the Loch Ness Monster. Gaining body fat comes from taking in more calories than you burn. Anyone who can prove otherwise will surely win a Nobel Prize in physics for disproving the first law of thermodynamics. I am unaware of that particular Nobel having been awarded.
Back on planet Earth, the link between weight loss and calories has been proven myriad times.
Rudolph Leibel et al. conducted a carefully controlled study in 1992, which was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and asserted: “Variations in fat intake from 0% to 70% of total energy under conditions of equal energy intake produced no significant changes in body weight over periods of observation averaging 33 d [days].” In language that we can all understand: Leibel’s study put participants on balanced energy diets: they controlled to ensure that the participants took in the same number of calories that they burned over a 33-day period. The participants got a varied range of overall fat content, from 0 percent to 70 percent, but everyone’s weight stayed the same, once again proving the first law of thermodynamics.12
Why did the participants’ weight stay the same? Because they were on maintenance-level calories. It does not matter what percentage of protein, carbohydrates or fat you consume in the grander scheme of weight loss and gain. It is all the simple formula of calories in minus calories out. Golay and Bobbioni, in their article 1997 “The Role of Dietary Fat in Obesity,” agree: “…fat is almost exclusively used or stored in response to day-to-day fluctuations in energy balance.”13
Beyond this, I’ve interviewed a number of the top obesity researchers in the world, and for every one it’s a “Well, duh!” that weight loss is calories in vs. calories out, regardless of the type of calories.
If you eat 2,000 calories of chicken wings and butter-fried pork rinds a day, yet burn 2,500 calories a day, you will lose weight. You will also be one unhealthy bugger.
If you eat 3,000 calories of spinach, carrots, and egg whites a day, yet burn 2,500 calories a day, you will gain weight. Harsh, but true.
The Twinkie diet
Is this sinking in? Although it didn’t qualify as an official study, Mark Haub’s experiment bears consideration. Haub is a nutrition professor at Kansas State University, although you may know him better as “Twinkie Guy.” In 2010, Twinkie Guy proved he could lose weight living mostly off of Twinkies, Doritos, Oreos and other treats just by consuming fewer calories than he burned. He lost 27 pounds in two months, though I imagine that due to the low satiety factor and high reward value of the food, he must have felt he was starving the entire time. He didn’t do the experiment to endorse a junk food weight loss program, but to prove a point: calories are all that matter to weight loss.
The entire purpose of this article so far is to provide you with a companion. While on the real journey towards fitness, health and weight loss, a traveling cloak of healthy skepticism will protect you from believing there is an easy way. There is no easy way.
Remember, if it sounds to good to be true, then it’s about as reliable as picking Courtney Love as your designated driver.
This is going to seem hard. It may be one of the hardest things you ever do. But you can power through. You can learn to feel the love. You can make exercise and healthy eating a part of who you are.
This isn’t something you do; it is someone you become. So don’t just do, be.
How, you ask? It’s time to embrace …
THE ORDINARY MIRACLE
Still waiting for that weight loss miracle? They do happen, but it’s not something that magically melts fat, it’s more like a spiritual awakening.
Read these examples, and get inspired.
From obese to battle hardened
Jen Hamel is a mother of two small children in Edmonton. Six years ago she was a smoker, daily Slurpee drinker and fast food eater. She was sedentary, unhappy, and weighed 205 lbs.
“There was a catalyst,” she told me. “I saw a group photo from a family reunion and finally realized what was happening to me. The next day I saw commercials for ‘Turbo Jam’ fitness DVDs, and because my kids were babies it made sense to exercise at home.”
And that lead to many more changes in Jen’s life.
“It started with exercise, and then I began making small changes in my diet,” she said. “It took me a year to lose 65 pounds.” But it didn’t stop there. “Gradually, over time, I just became a fitness freak.” She’s down to 135 lbs, runs in Spartan races, does half marathons, and competes in a women’s strength and fitness challenge called Femsport.
Jen became a polar opposite in terms of her previous lifestyle. Now she is working as a personal trainer with an eye on her first marathon.
Inspired by an ex-girlfriend
For 24-year-old Toronto chartered accountant Colt Davis, it was an ex-girlfriend, coupled with one of my articles that inspired him to shed over 50 pounds and reveal a chiseled midsection.
“I broke up with a girl I had dated for a few years in December, 2011,” Davis told me. “She told me she didn’t find me attractive anymore, and it really hit home.”
Standing 6 foot 4, Colt referred to himself as “chunky” when he and his girlfriend broke up. Then he read an article of mine published by AskMen called “The truth about six pack abs”14 and he said it really inspired him to change his life.
I asked him about the changes he made to achieve his transformation.
“I really regimented my diet,” he said. “My eating habits weren’t that terrible, but I had to stop snacking and cut back on those extra beers. I made conscious decisions to eat less junk.”
This diet change was coupled with a workout regimen that started mostly with running and squash. “I wanted to lose the weight first before gaining muscle. I didn’t want to be more bulky and covered in fat, so I focused on just losing fat for the first six months.” He dropped from 235 down to 180.
After that, with help from a knowledgeable friend and some Internet research, Colt packed on 15 pounds of muscle over the next six months.
“The hardest part was getting my head into it and just making it a habit,” he said. “After a while, I stopped dreading it and it became something I love doing. It’s a great way to blow off steam after a stressful day at work.”
And he’s seeing someone new. “Now I’m with a woman who wants to see me take my shirt off.” And at the risk of being TMI, Colt also said, “Stamina in the bedroom has definitely gone up.”
What happened to Jen and Colt isn’t a miracle. These kinds of transformations – the spiritual awakenings where people come to be defined by exercise and healthy eating – actually happen. It happened to them, and it can happen to you.
Have no faith in the false promises of charlatans and snake oil salesmen.
Have faith in yourself.
James S. Fell is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He also interviews celebrities about their fitness stories for the Los Angeles Times, and is head fitness columnist for AskMen.com.
- James S. Fell, “Can rocker shoes really help you lose weight?” Chatelaine.com, March 29, 2011. http://www.chatelaine.com/health/fitness/can-rocker-shoes-really-help-you-lose-weight/. Accessed March 12, 2013.
- Andre Meyer, “Why are we waging a war on wheat? CBC.ca, October 8, 2012. http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/story/2012/10/05/f-anti-wheat-diet.html. Accessed March 12, 2013.
- James S. Fell, “Her kettle bell rings false,” Los Angeles Times, October 11, 2010.
- Courtney Hutchison, “Snooki pushes Zantrex-3 diet pill, docs disapprove,” ABC News. September 28, 2011. http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Diet/snookis-zantrex-diet-pill-promo-poo-pooed-diet/story?id=14623421. Accessed March 12, 2013.
- Jenni, “By George,” http://aiyh.blogspot.ca/2005/06/by-george.html. Accessed November 20, 2012.
- Laura Ries, “Jorge Cruise,” April, 2005. http://ries.typepad.com/ries_blog/2005/04/jorge_cruise.html. Accessed November 20, 2012.
- http://www.the17daydiet.com. Accessed March 12, 2013.
- Christian Finn, “The Four-Hour Body Workout: Did Timothy Ferriss really gain 34 pounds of muscle in 28 days?” http://www.thefactsaboutfitness.com/research/4-hour-body.htm#.UT-IuaWK5Hs. Accessed March 12, 2013.
- Alyssa Shaffer, “A Body You Can Live With,” Health, January-February 2002, p. 54.
- Nick Heil, “Mr. Big,” Outside Magazine, September, 2003, http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/Mr–Big.html?page=all, Accessed November 17, 2012.
- Nadine Bells, “Furious Pete reveals secrets behind before-and-after body transformations,” Yahoo Canada. http://ca.shine.yahoo.com/furious-pete-reveals-secrets-behind-before-and-after-body-transformations.html. Accessed March 12, 2013.
- Rudolph Leibel et al., “Energy Intake Required to Maintain Body Weight is not Affected by Wide Variation in Diet Composition,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 55, 1992: 350-5.
- A. Golay and E. Bobbioni, “The Role of Dietary Fat in Obesity,” International Journal of Obesity Related and Related Metabolic Disorders, Suppl 3, June, 1997: S2-11.
- James S. Fell, “The truth about six-pack abs,” AskMen. http://ca.askmen.com/sports/bodybuilding_1000/1047_the-truth-about-six-pack-abs.html. Accessed March 12, 2013.
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