Retrofit Blog

Weight Loss Scams - And Why We're at Fault

The Siren Song of the Silver Bullet

January 22, 2014

Weight loss is hard. This is a fact many of us want to ignore. That's why weight loss scams are so prevalent. Perhaps you've tried some hot new diet pill, only to realize you were starving yourself. Perhaps you've even tried those trendy five-minute workouts, huffing and puffing till you were out of breath. After it all, you had just enough energy to throw your hands up in defeat. Well, you're not alone. Losing weight doesn't come easy. And so many Americans look to a quick fix, that miracle that'll shed the pounds without having you suffer through another diet or exhausting workout.

Sprinkle that magic powder on your dinner, and voila! You've dropped three pant sizes. Or how about that cream you rub on your midsection that trims inches off your stomach? Just use these products for a few weeks, and after that, your friends won't even recognize you. Sounds pretty great right? But if there are such potent weight loss products out there, how come the rest of the world isn't clamoring for these breakthroughs? Well, the truth is they don't work. There are no silver bullets that instantly bring down the beast. They're just a waste of your money.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will tell you the same thing. In 2012, 13% of fraud claims submitted to the FTC revolved around weight loss products. That's actually twice as much as any other category. In the last 10 years, the FTC has spent considerable time targeting too-good-to-be-true weight loss scams. With 1997's "Operation Waistline" and 2004's "Operation Big Fat Lie," the FTC cracked down on companies making false promises of easy weight loss.

But even with these FTC busts, new products keep springing up on the market. Why? Simple economics. The New York Times reports, "consumers are expected to spend about $66 billion this year on diet soft drinks, health club memberships, dietary supplements and other products aimed at weight loss, according to Marketdata Enterprises."

So as long as there is demand for instant weight loss, there will be a supply from scammers. This is indicative of the American mindset when it comes to losing weight. We want simple answers to a complex problem. Unfortunately, biology doesn't work like that. If you want to lose weight, you must put in the time. There are no magic pills or fad diets that will save the day.

The FTC suggests that the economic slump is partly to blame. The recession has led to greater sales for these products because consumers want to manage their own healthcare and avoid costly doctor visits and prescriptions.

However, this doesn't excuse the companies exploiting our personal health concerns and insecurities. Luckily, the FTC keeps careful tabs on these conmen. This is evident from the FTC's latest crackdown – "Operation Failed Resolution."

That's right, there's another bust. Some ingenious companies found yet more ways to take advantage of our inability to eat better and exercise more. Here's the kicker: some of those busted are respectable, widely recognized brands.

The culprits this time are Sensa, HCG Diet Direct, LeanSpa, and L'Occitane. None have admitted or denied the charges, but they must collectively pay $34 million to customers as refunds. Here's a quick run down of who they are and what they did:


  • $46.5 million judgment (but will pay $26.5 million).
  • Sold a powder you sprinkle on food. One-month supply cost $59.
  • Profit from sales totaled nearly $364 million between 2008 and 2012.
  • Claimed you could lose 30 pounds in six months without dieting or exercising.
  • Findings for the product were not supported by scientific evidence.
  • Made false claims about appearing on popular news outlets such as Oprah, Good Morning America, and CNN.

HCG Diet Direct

  • $3.2 million judgment.
  • Sold HCG Diet Direct Drops. Charged $35 for a seven-day supply.
  • Sold $3 million of the product between 2009 and 2012.
  • Drops contain a form of a hormone naturally produced by human placentas. This hormone was falsely promoted as a weight loss supplement for years


  • Must surrender cash, real estate, and personal property totaling $7.3 million.
  • Used fake news sites to promote acai berry and colon cleanse products.
  • Customers were charged monthly after signing up for free trials; charged up to $79.99 in shipping & handling fees.


  • $450,000 judgment.
  • Sold Almond Beautiful Shape ($48 for 7 oz.) cream, claiming to trim 1.3 inches in just four weeks.
  • Sold Almond Shaping Delight ($44 for 7 oz.) cream, claiming to visibly refine and reshape your silhouette.

The good news is the FTC is now urging media organizations not to accept advertisements from companies that make dubious weight loss claims. According to the New York Times, "Linda Goldstein, the chairwoman of the advertising and marketing division at the law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, said the settlements made clear that the commission would accept only double-blind, placebo-controlled studies to document the medical effectiveness of diet regimes."

But the problem is it's not just fly-by-night companies getting in on the action anymore. In 2009, the sale of weight loss supplements was estimated to be $25 billion. With numbers like that, it's no wonder respected retailors like L'Occitane are entering the game. However, when respected retailers throw their hat in the ring, it becomes even harder to differentiate among the scammers. Therefore, I think it's best to treat weight loss like a long-term goal. To do it well, you must be dedicated and disciplined, and most of all, patient. Besides, there are few things more rewarding than seeing your hard work pay off.

Losing weight requires you to be accountable to you. Once you accept that, you won't go looking for the silver bullet for instant results. At Retrofit, we have our clients do small, simple things each day like track their steps and weigh themselves. These actions - which might seem insignificant - actually deliver the results most Americans are looking for. However, these results don't come quickly. Over the course of one year, we've found:

  • Clients that achieved 10,000 steps per day or more lost on average 10.2% of their body weight.
  • Clients that weighed in five days a week or more lost on average 10.6% of their body weight.
  • Clients that did both of the above lost on average 12.3% of their body weight.

Sure, these results aren't as exciting as 30 pounds in six months, but they're real.

The weight loss industry is big business, and there is no shortage of companies who want to piggyback on its success. But don't be fooled by them. They're charlatans who want nothing more than to cheat you. People buy into all sorts of schemes because they want to lose weight fast, but remember, drastic weight loss is uncommon. The real work in weight loss is in changing your point of view. Aim for small, consistent changes. Those are the ones that lead to lasting results. It's the difference between a Ponzi scheme and a balanced portfolio of investments. The contribution of any single change is small, but by tipping your daily decisions to healthier choices, you get a solid and reliable return over time.

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Kim Evenson Chief Marketing Officer

Kim is on a mission to revolutionize the weight loss industry one pound at a time. Prior to Retrofit, she served as SVP of Marketing for and Director of Health & Wellness at Kraft Foods. She has consulted for fitness retail, healthy new product development, and online marketing. She began her career at Peapod, Starbucks, and H.E. Butt Grocery. Kim earned her BA from Northwestern University and her MBA from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

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