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Weight Loss Miracles

Today’s edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) features an editorial co-authored by Yoni Freedhoff (of Weighty Matters fame) and myself on the largely unregulated weight-loss industry that is often heavy on promises but light on evidence.

The reason we slam the often preposterous weight-loss claims is not because Yoni and I are against commercial enterprise – both of us make a living treating patients for obesity. The reason we wrote the editorial (together with the editorial team of CMAJ), is because we believe that patients, who present with a legitimate and potentially deadly and disabling chronic disease, should receive proper medical care based on the best available scientific evidence. We feel that the delivery of this care, not unlike care for other medical conditions, is best left in the hands of licensed and regulated health professionals. When regulated health professionals themselves engage in pseudoscience, it is up to the colleges and professional bodies to step in and ensure that obesity care is delivered in an ethical and professional manner with due regard to best evidence.

Indeed, there are numerous “private” centers and practicing health professionals that offer a wide range of credible, ethical and evidence-based obesity treatments – many of these can be found among the extensive Weight Wise Community Network.

Much of the confusion about what works and what doesn’t is perhaps due to the mistaken notion that weight loss in itself is a measure of success. As I always remind my patients, it never matters how much you lose, only how much you can keep off.

Unfortunately, while most patients expect to lose (and keep off) half their weight, even surgery on average only delivers around 30% long-term weight loss.

The idea, that results rivaling or even exceeding those seen with bariatric surgery can be achieved by simply taking a “natural” product bought off a super market shelf or the internet, which promises to help you shed pounds by “cleansing” your body or “boosting” your metabolism (all with no side effects and without having to move a muscle), is simply preposterous. Believe me, if such a product existed, I’d be the first to prescribe it to my patients.

The sad reality is that there is no “magic” solution – long-term weight management requires strict control of energy balance – best achieved by careful adjustment of dietary caloric intake combined with increased activity. Yes, at times, prescription drugs, low-calorie diets, or even surgery will be necessary – but even these are not magical cures – just evidence-based treatments for the chronic medical condition called obesity.

The following is a simple consumer guide to recognizing fraudulent weight loss products:

Mistrust any product that claims to

– cause weight loss of two pounds or more a week for a month or more without dieting or exercise

– cause substantial weight loss no matter what or how you eat

– cause permanent weight loss (even when you stop using product)

– safely enable consumers to lose more than three pounds per week for more than four weeks

– cause substantial weight loss for all users

– cause substantial weight loss by wearing it on the body or rubbing it into the skin

For a comprehensive document on how to recognize fraudulent products from the US Bureau of Consumer Protection click here. You may also want to check out the add for “Fat Foe” at the head of this post.

Incidentally, the CMAJ editorial is accompanied by an article on Yoni’s remarkable private collection of “Believe it or Not”-style weight-loss treatments – these indeed need to be seen to be believed. Additional photographs of preposterous weight-loss products can be found on the CMAJ website.

I am certain that this CMAJ editorial will cause a stir in the media – will it stop people from spending their money on useless diet aids and weight-loss gizmos – hardly.

Edmonton, Alberta


  1. Brilliant editorial in the CMAJ. I have been trying to get this point across for a long time.
    You rock!

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  2. Just read your article in the CMAJ. Title says it all. I deal with these patients all the time. The issue is the snake oil people’s claims
    are much more alluring than the sensible doc who tells them about the 1-2 lbs per week or the 10% loss being beneficial.
    Also people do lose weight on the “magic herbs”; the fact that they don’t maintain doesn’t faze them-they move on to the next magical
    potion. These are the same people who freak out about the cost and side effects of prescription drugs but will quite happily ingest what the
    weight loss people tell them to take without full disclosure of ingredients.
    Fully agree with regulatory mechanisms-but it’s an unscrupulous, greedy industry with an ever-increasing pool of consumers(given the rising incidence
    of obesity) and I suspect there are a lot of loopholes that need to closed before they can be regulated.
    So, gentlemen, your mission is to educate the public. After all if there are no consumers the industry won’t survive! Keep ranting, Yoni.

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  3. I agree that there are too many people & companies making a fortune on the ingorance & faith of obese & overweight people.
    It does amaze however that no where in Edmonton is there a support group fro Bariatric patients.
    Oh wait…yes there is. We’ve had one for years now.
    We openly share information, cry, laugh, praise & call each other out on crap.
    The amazing part is that the support group is entirely patient-run.
    Weight Wise, Capital Health & the Bariatric Clinic refuse to acknowledge our existence even after repeated requests.
    They refuse to tell other patients about us becasue we are not an “offical” group by Capital Health.
    I guess supporting peers through a similar journey counts for very little in the real world of Corporate Grants.
    We’ve seen a friend die on the wait list.
    We’ve seen people die who were not told of our group.
    Would anything have changed had they been supported by our group or had out Group been supported by professional?
    I guess we’ll never know.
    Certainly the dead ones never will.
    Don’t kid yourself that this is a battle for life.
    Yes, read & take this Blog as well as Weighty Matters for the wonderful Blogs they are. Both are fantastic sources in information.
    But don’t kid yourselves.
    Neither support the actual people who are living & trying to get through Weight Wise and/or the Bariatric prgram in Edmonton, Alberta.

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  4. The diet industry certainly preys on vulnerable people, and always come up with some fine print that explains “results may not be typical” etc but the main messages are that you can reasonably expect weight just to fall off with their service or product. Having well known obesity experts advocate for industry regulation is great to see.

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  5. Thank you Dr. Sharma (and Dr. Freedhoff too) for that wonderful editorial, and thanks to the FTC link. It’s nice to see that there are actually people interested in cutting through all the misinformation about nutrition and weight loss that is out there. I hope this is something that consumers will start paying attention to so we can start silencing these bogus claims!

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  6. I am trusting that giving my e-mail address will remain confidential and I won’t be recieving a bunch of crap from weight loss “unprofesionals” Your artical yesterday caught my attention for sure. I bought into the Herbal Magic bull and actually lost 20 lbs. very quickly under their “guarantee”! Of cource I felt great, but as soon as I hit a plateau their mannerisms all changed and it was of cource my “cheating” that was why I wasn’t loosing any more. They rig it all so as soon as they can catch you even once missing an appointment (you have to go every day) or eating an extra carrot, then your bull**** “guarantee is out the window. I was shocked at how their attitude changed toward me once I stopped loosing and then the reality is that of cource they have any number of additional “products” they can sell you to hopefully start you loosing again. I’m sure you’ve heard it all. I wish I had my $3,000.00 back!!! All I got back was of cource the weight I lost.
    In addition to your list for regulation, their needs to be a consumer complaint list that people can readily access. I found this mostly impossible to find. Also medical Doctors don’t take you serious (I’m 57) when you tell them you have suddenly gained 10, 15, or 20 pounds. You need to be totally obese for them to listen which is really sad because we all know when we need to start loosing and it would be a lot easier to loose 10 than 100.
    I wish you well with your exposure of explotation of consumers.
    Sincerely, Vera

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  1. Dr. Sharma’s Obesity Notes » Blog Archive » Review of Commercial Weight-Loss Programs - [...] after yesterday’s CMAJ editorial, in which Yoni and I blasted some practices of commercial weight loss programs, created a…

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