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Say 'Aaah' | Before You Bite

Still Chasing the Ultimate Weight-Loss Plan

November 06, 2000|Phil Lempert | Phil Lempert hosts a national syndicated radio show and is the food correspondent for NBC's "Today" show

I confess: I would love to lose 10 pounds and do it without any effort or hunger pains. And I would love not to have to bother with counting calories or fat grams.

Millions of Americans obviously feel the same way. Each year we spend about $50 billion on weight-loss products and programs. We are enticed by marketing pitches that claim we can lose weight without trying too hard or that offer us emotional support from peers. We want it to be quick and painless--and with as little sweat as possible.

Most of us have heard somewhere that dietary and lifestyle changes, along with regular exercise, are the keys to permanent weight loss. Yet, despite such information, we still are suckers for the latest miracle diet.

The diet industry is thriving amid reports in the media about the growing problem of obesity in America. Sixty-five new diet products and programs were trotted out in the first 10 months of this year alone, all claiming to help people achieve their weight-loss goals.

Slim Fast, the company whose weight-loss drink was popularized by celebrity endorsements, is trying to expand its drink regimen with a new Meal On-the-Go bars. The company recommends that people replace two meals a day with a Slim Fast shake or Meal On-the-Go Bar, and eat a "sensible" third meal for dinner. The Slim Fast folks also suggest that, in addition, you eat up to three snacks a day of fruit, vegetables and (no surprise here) Slim Fast energy bars. The subtle (or not) insinuation is that you can't lose the weight without their brand.

Dr. Robert Atkins, who started the high-protein diet craze back in 1972, has a new line of foods called the Atkins Diet Advantage, which includes shakes, breakfast bars and syrups. All are low in carbohydrates with no added sugar. But you have to wonder about the assortment of products. Pressed for time as so many people are these days, does Atkins really think that his syrup recipes for NYC egg creams, macaroons and vanilla pecan pancakes will become part of our lifestyle, let alone everyday diet?

SlimSense Inc. is selling its SlimShake beverage mix and OptiBlock, a dietary supplement that the company claims will partially block the absorption of fat and sugar in the digestive tract.

For its part, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns consumers that any claims that say you can lose weight without effort are false. Prior to 1994, the agency banned hundreds of ingredients used in diet foods and products sold over the counter on the grounds that they had not been scientifically proven to effect weight loss or appetite suppression. Under rule changes in 1994, however, manufacturers were no longer required to receive premarket approval to market weight-loss products.

Today, companies can market diet products without having to demonstrate to federal regulators that they actually are effective at aiding weight loss. If the FDA determines later that the claims are false, it can bring legal action against the company.


The FDA and Federal Trade Commission, which oversees advertising claims, has published specific warnings to consumers about some types of dietary products and ingredients.

* Fat blockers purport to physically absorb fat and mechanically interfere with the fat a person eats. Orlistat, marketed under the brand name Xenical, is a prescription drug that indeed does block about a third of the fat one consumes. However, it also blocks absorption of some fat-soluble vitamins, carotenoids and other essential nutrients. There are herbal products that have similar-sounding names but do not contain the drug.

* Fat burners typically contain pyruvate or caffeine, both of which have been proven in research studies to "burn" fat. But, according to the federal government, the fat-burning process has only been demonstrated in a relatively small group of people who are not obese, who eat six small meals a day (with no more than 20% of calories from fat) and who do both cardiovascular and resistance training as part of regular fitness routines.

* Starch blockers promise to block or impede starch digestion. The FDA says such claims are not scientifically proven and these products are reported to have side effects including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pains.

* Glucomannan is a natural fiber derived from the roots of the Amorphophallus konjac plant, which can absorb up to 50 times its weight in liquid. The effect when taken in pill or powder form is a feeling of fullness in the stomach. According to the FDA, there is little evidence that supports the claims for this product as a weight-loss aid.

* Spirulina, a species of blue-green algae, is also touted as a weight-loss aid. It is a high-protein, low-fat source of numerous vitamins, minerals, carotenoids and essential fatty acids. However, the FDA says its not effective for losing weight.

If you really want to lose weight and keep it off, avoid quick-fix foods and beverages. Focus on making modest changes to your diet and increase your exercise. A reasonable goal would be to try to lose a pound a week. For most people, that would require reducing your intake by about 500 calories a day. And get more exercise.


Phil Lempert hosts a national syndicated radio show and is the food correspondent for NBC's "Today" show. He can be reached by e-mail at His column appears the first and third Mondays of the month.

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