How to Spot a Weight Loss Scam

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Dieters, it’s time to arm yourself with sharper consumer tools. Sneaky weight loss scammers are using smart new techniques to sell their products. Could you be their next victim?

If you’re a typical consumer, you might be. Unfortunately, the same advertising messages that used to help us feel good about a product are the same red flags that should now sound a warning bell. For example, do these phrases look familiar?

“…clinically proven to burn more fat…”

“…backed by science…”

“…laboratory tested to provide weight loss results…”

Scientific claims used to provide consumers with confidence. But now they are being used to sell diet pills and other products that aren’t effective and may even be unsafe. So how do you protect yourself?

There are five potential red flags to look for when you’re shopping for a weight loss product. Use this guide to identify each possible warning sign and then use the information to sort through the facts so that you don’t waste your time or your money on diet products that don’t work.


Ambiguous Use of Percents

Close-up of feet standing on scale

Blend Images/John Fedele/Getty Images

When diet product manufacturers want to grab your attention they often boast about impressive scientific results. But advertisers can sugarcoat poor lab results by using ambiguous percents. See if these phrases look familiar:

“…burns 30% more fat…”

“…burns 75% more calories…”

“…lose weight 50% faster…”

Those numbers look impressive, don’t they? Who doesn’t want to burn more fat and calories? The problem is that those phrases don’t provide essential information. Anytime a product is compared, you need to know what is being compared to make a smart decision.

For example, let’s say a diet pill manufacturer says that their product was studied and results prove that it helped people lose weight 75% faster. The claim sounds impressive, but you need to ask yourself: “75% faster than what?”

The study may have compared people taking the diet pill along with a diet and exercise program to people not taking the diet pill and not dieting or exercising. Common sense would tell you that the diet and exercise produced a weight loss result, not the diet pill.

You should also compare actual numbers rather than percents to make an informed choice. For example, a product we reviewed helped exercisers burn 6% more calories during a workout, but the actual number of extra calories burned was only about 18 – not nearly enough calories to make a real difference in your weight loss program.


A Long List of Unrelated Studies

Another way that diet pill companies try to gain credibility with potential consumers is by citing clinical studies. You may see a tab on a diet program website that provides information on the science behind their product. But you should be wary if you see a very, very long list of clinical studies. It is possible, of course, that all of the studies support the product being advertised. But it’s also possible that they don’t.

In my experience, if the list of clinical studies is exceptionally long, the studies cited are often unrelated to the product being sold. They might also be outdated studies or clinical trials performed on mice. I’ve even seen studies that contradict the product’s efficacy, but they are listed anyway.

So why do manufacturers list all of those studies if they don’t actually support the product being sold? My guess is that they assume that the consumer won’t take the time to click on links and read the actual research. After all, who has time to read 50 studies about a weight loss herb?  So the consumer assumes that the long list of studies is evidence of a good product – when in fact, it’s nothing more than a long list of studies.


“Significant” Results

Sometimes weight loss product manufacturers use the word “significant” to describe their product’s benefit. A claim like this may be a red flag:

“…laboratory tested and proven to provide significant results…”

That statement seems more impressive than it really is. And there’s a tricky reason why.

When scientists conduct research and write up their research results for publication, they use the word “significant” differently than we use it in our typical daily ​conversations. Scientists use statistical formulas to determine if research results qualify as “significant.” So, a very small, microscopic or even fractional result might be “significant” according to technical scientific standards. But that doesn’t mean that the result should matter to you.

Just because a product has shown a significant result in a lab setting doesn’t mean that it will provide any meaningful or even noticeable result in your life.  A smart consumer will ignore the word “significant” and pay attention to other more important data in the ad.


Exaggerated Language

Have you seen ads for diet pills or weight loss products that use really impressive words or phrases?  Words like these are common:

“…breakthrough treatment…”

“…first of its kind…”

“…exclusive compound…”

“…secret formula…”

As weight loss experts, we can confirm that we have seen no weight loss secrets, or magical compounds, or breakthrough treatments so far in my career.  The vast majority of weight loss success stories happen as a result of time-tested methods like diet and exercise.


Refunds with Small Print

Many weight loss pills and products offer a money back guarantee. As a consumer, this guarantee offers a sense of security because you (reasonably) assume that you can get your money back if the product doesn’t work. But sometimes, the refund policy comes with small print that’s hard to find. You may not be able to get your money back at all.

During one review of a product, we had to search through multiple web pages before we were able to find the actual terms of the money back guarantee. As it turns out, the only customers who were eligible to receive a refund are those who purchased under very specific (and narrow) circumstances. 

Always read the small print. And if you can’t find it, email the company for clarification. Find out if you can get your money back, how you can get your money back and how much money you will receive.


Protect Yourself From Diet Scams

Not every diet product and weight loss program is a scam. There are some products that may make weight loss easier, but many products don’t provide the benefit that dieters hope that it will provide.  So how do you protect yourself?

Look for the red flags that I’ve listed. Then gather more information. Just because a weight loss product includes a questionable claim, doesn’t make it a fraud. But it does mean that you should ask for more information before you invest your money, waste your time or risk your health. 

You can gather information in a few different ways:

  • Ask the manufacturer for more information. Look for the “Contact Us” tab on the website or the phone number on an advertisement. Ask specific questions and if you don’t get a specific response, walk away.
  • Ask your pharmacist, your doctor or your certified trainer. Your doctor is always the best resource for specific information about pills, supplements, and weight loss programs. You can also talk to your pharmacist or your certified personal trainer to get more generalized information.
  • Use credible online sources. If you need information about an herbal supplement for weight loss, check the National Institutes of Health Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets. The database is updated regularly and provides unbiased information about many diet pills.

As much as we hate to admit it, most of us know that the best way to lose weight is to use good old-fashioned common sense methods. Eat a reduced-calorie, healthy diet and participate in a regular program of exercise to lose weight and keep it off for good.

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