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Giver, beware

SPECIAL ISSUE: GIFT GUIDE / THE HEALTHY SKEPTIC HOLIDAY
SPECIAL

Do the claims of these potential holiday presents hold up under scrutiny? The experts weigh in.

December 17, 2007|Chris Woolston | Special to The Times

Unfortunately, no bathroom scale can accurately measure visceral fat, says Kenneth Ellis, principal investigator of the Body Composition Laboratory at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "It really surprises me that they are claiming to do it," he says. Instead, scales such as the Ironman can make only a rough estimate based on a person's weight and the ease with which a small jolt of electricity runs through the body. (Electricity moves easily through lean tissue, but lots of fat will make for a sluggish signal.)

Two recent studies from Japan have found that electricity-based estimates of visceral fat can be off by as much as 50%. Estimates of total body fat would be somewhat more reliable, Ellis says, but they're still limited by the fact that they can measure only the electricity that flows up one leg and down the other. Anything you're carrying above the waist would be essentially invisible to the machine.

The only way to accurately measure visceral fat is to have a CT scan or similar high-tech test. But, in most cases, Ellis says, your body mass index -- a calculation based on your height and weight -- will tell you all you need know. Unless you're muscle-bound, a BMI of 30 strongly suggests that you have too much fat -- visceral and otherwise -- for your own good.

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EMF pendants

If you'd like to protect friends and family from electromagnetic fields -- invisible energy streaming from power lines, cellphones and strings of Christmas lights -- Earthtrade and other companies have a gift idea: pendants that supposedly block EMFs. Some of the pendants cost nearly $500, but the Q-Link pendant -- made of "biocompatible" acrylic -- is a relative bargain at about $100. The Earthtrade site explains that "while the jewelry is shielding you from the radiation, your body can start eliminating the toxins from your body and help to raise your energy levels along with your level of health."

The pendants may look stylish -- if biocompatible acrylic is your thing -- but there's no way they could protect a person against EMFs, says Kelly Classic, a health physicist at the Mayo Clinic and a spokeswoman for the Health Physics Society. "They're a waste of money," she says. As Classic explains, the skin directly beneath the pendant might be shielded from EMFs. But for the rest of the body, it will be business as usual. Contrary to ads, the Q-Link pendant was never intended to block EMFs, says Liz Katona, director of marketing for Clarus Transphase Scientific, the company that manufactures the product. "I don't know of anything that could work as a shield against EMFs short of a lead cage." Instead, she says, the pendant reinforces a person's innate energy fields to make the body immune to the dangers of EMFs.

Those dangers are still unproven: According to a 2007 report from the World Health Organization, there's no good evidence that everyday EMFs from power lines or cellphones can cause cancer or any other illness.

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Q-Ray bracelet

For just $80 to $300, you can buy jewelry that made history. The "ionized" Q-Ray bracelet isn't just a flashy piece of metallic wristwear; it was also the centerpiece of a landmark false advertising lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission.

Advertisements from QT Inc. -- the company behind Q-Ray -- had claimed that the ionized metals in the bracelet worked like acupuncture to "relieve pain the natural way" and restore a person's natural energy flow, or "chi." Some websites selling the Q-Ray bracelets continue to make similar claims, a bold move considering QT's fate.

QT founder Que Te Park admitted in federal court that the term "ionized" was essentially meaningless. In a 2006 verdict, the judge ruled that "there was no scientific evidence presented that the Q-Ray bracelet . . . has any properties different from any other bracelet made from the same metals." In 2006, Park and other defendants were ordered to turn over $22.5 million in profits and refund as much as $87 million to disgruntled customers. The company continues to sell Q-Ray bracelets over the Internet, but now it promises little more than "alternative ways to enhance overall lifestyle and happiness."

A 2002 study by researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that patients reported less pain after wearing Q-Ray bracelets for a month, but patients wearing regular bracelets enjoyed just as much relief.

Sometimes, a bracelet is just a bracelet.

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