By Jennifer Waters, MarketWatch
The Federal Trade Commission did consumers a favor last week by pointing out recent cases where shaking a powder on your food or lathering a skin cream on your tummy will not lead to weight loss.
Shedding pounds, for the most part, is not rocket science -- but it can be complicated. Yes, we are what we eat, and the types of calories we shovel into our mouths matters. But no diet will work real magic -- keeping fat off forever -- unless it's controlled, contains serious lifestyle changes and involves an exercise routine.
Thus, the FTC felt compelled to remind us as that we shouldn't be such suckers when companies claim that losing those extra pounds will be easy. It likely took years to accumulate those rolls around your belly, and they won't just miraculously fade away. Take a look at TV shows like "The Biggest Loser" or "Extreme Weight Loss." Those contestants might need to lose more than the 20 pounds you have vowed to take off this year, but their agonizing journeys are further proof that there's no easy way to lose weight.
"The chances of being successful at substantial weight loss just by sprinkling something on your food, rubbing creams on your body or just using a supplement are slim to none," Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. "The science just isn't there."
(Also see: 10 things the weight-loss industry won't tell you http://www.marketwatch.com/story/10-things-the-weight-loss-industry-wont-tell-you-2014-01-10.)
Which is why the FTC took the makers of Sensa and three other companies to task for their advertising claims. Sensa is the highly touted weight-loss product that promises weightwatchers they can "sprinkle, eat and lose" without dieting by shaking a crystallized product that looks a lot like fine sugar on their food. Consumers generally pay $59, plus shipping and handling, for a month's worth of shakers. The company also sells fashionable cases ($10) and water bottles ($12).
The FTC, which doesn't have the authority to stop the company from operating, slapped a $46.5 million judgment against Sensa Products and its parent Sensa Inc., because they did not provide "competent and reliable scientific evidence" to support their claims. (The company is paying $26.5 million of the settlement because it's "unable" to pay the rest, according to the agency.)
The FTC's complaint also charged the company's chief executive, Adam Goldenberg, and Sensa's creator, part owner and long-time pitchman Dr. Alan Hirsch, with "deceptive advertising for making unsubstantiated claims about Sensa." And what about all those testimonials from "average" people touting Sensa? Turns out, they were mostly compensated for their endorsements at $1,000 to $5,000 a pop -- plus free trips to Los Angeles. The company can no longer pay for endorsements without disclosure.
The FTC also leveled charges against L'Occitane, for its Almond Beautiful Shape and Almond Shaping Delight slimming skin creams, HCG Diet Direct for its liquid drops that include an unproven human hormone, and LeanSpa, a Connecticut-based company that allegedly deceptively promoted acai berries and colon-cleanse supplements on fake websites. L'Occitane will pay $450,000 to settle charges of deceptive marketing while LeanSpa's owner and spouse will surrender $7.3 million in assets to settle the charges. HCG's $3.2 million judgment was suspended because it cannot pay. In total, the settlements equal $34.3 million, which the FTC will use to reimburse consumers.
Though the FTC's authority is limited to sanctions, Rich believes actions like these will help consumers get their heads out of the sand. "We want consumers to learn to recognize telltale signs of a rip-off," she said.
But what's wrong with us that we don't already know a diet scam when we see one? Some of us seriously believed that we could sprinkle a magic dust on our food and lose weight.
"People want to believe this stuff works, because they want a quick fix," says Mary Marian, clinical dietitian and instructor at the University of Arizona. "And they just move from one new product to the next in hopes that something is finally going to work."
Sensa's marketing, even after the FTC judgment, suggests that you don't need restrictive diets to lose weight. The HCG website actually discourages you from exercising beyond taking 20-minute walks, because the low-calorie diet -- a mere 500 calories -- that goes with the drops will leave you zapped of energy.
But dietitians say that sustainable weight loss is only achievable through a healthy combination of the right foods and exercise, noting that the couch potatoes of the 1960s and 1970s got far more exercise than most of us do today, because they at least had to get off their butts to change TV stations or answer a phone call.
"There are so many angles to why people are more obese today," Marian says. "We're not just lazy but not as active as we once were, because we drive everywhere, we have cellphones and remote controls, and we sit in front of computers 12 hours a day without moving. You're mentally busy all day so you think you're physically busy too.
Obesity expert James Hill, professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver and director of the Colorado Nutrition Obesity Research Center, is the author the "Step Diet Book." He's long advocated walking 10,000 steps a day as a weight-loss tactic. It takes about 2,000 steps to walk a mile, so you're looking at five miles of walking, running and simply moving your limbs each day. It includes getting up to make a phone call, walking to the bus or taking the stairs up those two flights.
In other words, you need to move. Start at 2,000 steps and work your way up to 10,000 steps in 500-step increments if needed.
And keep an eye not only how much you're eating, but what you're eating. A landmark Harvard study released in 2011 debunked the myth that low-fat diets, for example, were the answer. "The total amount of fat isn't really linked with weight or disease," according to the Harvard School of Public Health's Nutrition Source. "What really matters is the type of fat and the total calories in the diet." It's the good fats vs. bad fats debate: Good ones are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that are found in plant-based foods, nuts and seafood, while the bad guys are trans and saturated fats, which are found in animal and dairy products, and hydrogenated fats that up the risks for certain diseases.
Finally, your daily management of calories in, calories out is critical, but you want nutrients too. Your body needs three types of calories: carbohydrates, protein and fat. If you use up your daily calorie allotment with a few high-calorie foods or drinks, you're missing the chance to get healthy and derailing your efforts. It's like choosing half a Big Mac at 275 calories, or eating an avocado, which is 250 calories -- almost all from "good" fat. Which do you think is healthier?
"A good diet is 50% of what you eat and 50% of your behavior, or how you manage what you eat and your activity level," Marian says. "It takes constant vigilance to pay attention to what you're eating and how you're exercising. It's not going to happen on its own."
-Jennifer Waters; 415-439-6400; AskNewswires@dowjones.com
* One pound of body weight is roughly equal to 3,500 calories. If you want to lose one pound in a week, you need to reduce consumption by 500 calories per day or burn 500 more calories a day than you ingest, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. How many calories you burn daily will depend on your weight, body size, activity level and age. Your metabolism usually slows down as you get older.
* You can safely take off three or more pounds a week with a healthy diet and lots of exercise. Limiting salts and starches will take pounds off fast, but it's water weight, not fat.
* The more you weigh, the faster the first few pounds will melt away as you eliminate salts, starches and sugars, incorporate healthier foods like fruits and vegetables into your diet, and step up your daily exercise habits.
* Exercise builds muscles. Muscles burn more calories than fat.
* Exercise can send your appetite into overdrive. Be careful not to splurge on junk food after a workout.
* Get a pedometer. "People think they're more active than they really are," Marian says. "When they use a pedometer they're amazed at how inactive they really are."
* There are a host of sites for dietary guidelines, but Health.gov is a good place to start your research.
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01-15-14 0901ETCopyright (c) 2014 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.