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Sit, listen and shed pounds? Phooey

Hypnosis might hone a commitment to healthy living, but CDs tend to promise too much.

January 08, 2007|Chris Woolston | Special to The Times

Please investigate hypnosis for weight loss.

GWEN H. Compton


The product: You're getting sleepy. Very sleepy. But are you also getting skinny?

Hypnotherapists across the country are staking claim to the multibillion-dollar weight-loss industry. Through websites, newspaper classifieds, radio spots and local TV ads, they pitch waist-reducing therapy sessions and slimming CDs. Some even offer to hypnotize clients over the phone.

The claims: The word "effortless" dominates advertisements for weight-loss hypnosis. Many practitioners claim that hypnosis can help people embrace exercise and healthy foods -- little or no willpower required. In a tone reminiscent of a revival preacher, L.A. hypnotherapist Michael Almaraz assures CD listeners that his words will "strengthen your determination and desire ... giving you much more self-control than ever before." Others claim that clients can use brainpower to boost their metabolism and shed fat. "Healthy & Natural Weight Loss," a CD by L.A. hypnotherapist Monte Hueftle, lulls the listener with phrases such as, "I can sense my body burning more calories efficiently, naturally and safely."

The reported results often border on the miraculous. According to the website of Steve G. Jones, a hypnotherapist in Savannah, Ga., hypnosis can "increase metabolic rate by 76.9% without exercise" and "reduce 40-70% overall fat under skin."

Bottom line: Dr. David Spiegel, medical director of the Stanford Center for Integrative Medicine in Stanford, Calif., believes in the therapeutic value of hypnosis. (As past president of the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, he'd better.) But even he says that the vast majority of weight-loss claims made by hypnotherapists are bunk.

"It's a caricature of real hypnosis," Spiegel says.

Real hypnotherapists use calming words and mental imagery to focus a client's attention. Hypnosis doesn't put people in a trance or force them do things against their will, but it can help people gain more control over their thoughts and emotions. When done properly, hypnosis can relieve stress, ease pain or help people quit smoking, Spiegel says. But no hypnotherapist can honestly promise dramatic weight loss.

At best, Spiegel says, hypnosis might help someone shave off a few pounds by curbing stress-related food binges or sharpening a commitment to a healthy lifestyle. The most recently published study -- released nearly nine years ago by British researchers -- found modest benefits. Sixty obese patients received either dietary advice alone or advice combined with hypnotherapy geared toward reducing stress or curbing appetite. Three months later, all three groups had lost 2% to 3% of their body weight. After 18 months, only the stress-reduction group had maintained weight loss: about 8 pounds.

The lack of hypnosis studies since the 1990s reflects a dearth of interest in the approach among weight-loss experts, says Daniel Kirschenbaum, director of the Center for Behavioral Medicine & Sport Psychology in Chicago. The overall record of hypnosis in scientific weight-loss studies has been "deeply unimpressive," he says. "Weight loss is not effortless. We have to get away from such nonsense."

Spiegel believes that hypnosis can play a small but helpful part in a larger plan to lose weight. He recommends finding a psychiatrist or psychologist -- an MD or a PhD -- with experience in the technique. "Many people making weight-loss claims," he says, "learned hypnosis during a weekend seminar."

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