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Prove It! Moby Dick 1 —

February 11, 2014

Weight LossFat HealthFat ScienceExerciseDiet Talk

Trigger warning: This post is about a bogus weight loss product.

tl;dr warning: This investigation is almost a month in the making and requires some depth to tell it right. Therefore, I am dividing this into a two-part series. Bear with me, it pays off in the end.

February is a nice month, isn’t it? I’ve always found that between October and December life starts to get progressively more frantic thanks to the holidays. I enjoy this time of year immensely, but it just wears me out, psychologically and emotionally. I look forward to getting into the New Year and starting fresh. But January brings about our annual gauntlet of self-loathing that is New Year’s resolution commercials.

This year, I noticed one particular commercial that began airing on our Classic Rock station around Christmas. The male announcer was telling us about a fantastic new product called Final Trim that they were just giving away. FOR FREE!

I know!

Immediately, I found myself wondering who are these kind-hearted philanthropists?

The announcer then said, “You must be a man between the ages of 35 and 65, and need to lose at least 30 pounds.” Hey! I qualify for this benevolent offer. I should pay attention. “This product is proven and can cause dramatic weight loss, so supplies are limited.” Proven, eh? I have yet to actually find much proof that anything short of gastromutilation has statistically impressive long-term success rates. But this radio ad sounds like they might be onto something. “Take two capsules twice a day as directed and you can experience maximum weight loss.” Ah! Capsules! Brilliant! “If your weight loss is too dramatic, please reduce intake to one capsule.” Gadzooks, man! Pray tell where I might acquire such a potent wonderdrug for fatties like me?

The announcer spewed the 800 number, but alas, I had neither pad, nor pen.Final Trim

But I was inspired by the commercial.

When anyone writes about Health at Every Size® (HAES), the response from skeptics and haters is “Prove it!” Whatever proof you give is typically met with derision before a single word is read. And if the person actually tries to read the research, they don’t actually understand it. And any evidence they provide to the contrary is either restating the obvious, not refuting HAES or weakass tea (Exhibit A: This longass Tumblr debate with someone who thinks the National Weight Control Registry is a representative sample).

I’m a big believer in refuting morons so others may witness the exchange and decide who gives the best argument and evidence, but it gets kind of old to constantly be on the defensive against dimwits who think they can “back me into a corner.” I’ve answered serious skeptics who aren’t just wasting my time with an endless parade of strawmen and unsubstantiated claims. Now I want to try something different.

I’m going on the offensive. There are an endless parade of people and organizations who claim they have solved the obesity epidemic… for a nominal fee, of course. I want proof. I want to know what evidence they have to back up the claims they are making in public about their weight loss products or philosophies. I’ve read a shit-ton of research on weight loss and the results are always the same. I’m ready to be shocked by someone whose results make them clearly superior to any other weight loss plan.

So, I’m starting with the most basic, most idiotic, most bullshittingest weight loss product known to humanity: the herbal weight loss pill.

White Whale

After I heard the Final Trim commercial, I knew I had to call this company. More importantly, I wanted share this amazing claim that their product was so powerful that my body might not be able to handle two whole pills. At first, I attempted transcribe the words out whenever the commercial came on. Then, I kept my cell phone’s audio recorder active at night while we listened to the radio. I planned to turn it on quickly and capture as much as I could. Unfortunately, it never played when I was ready; I’d be driving in the car when it came on or chasing my kids through the living room. So after a week of being on guard, I still hadn’t captured it.

Then, an epiphany.

In my son’s room, he has my old college boombox, which has a tape recorder. Bonus: there was a blank tape in it already.

For three nights, I recorded our station in 75 minute increments and diligently flipped the tape with each final click. Then, one chilly afternoon, I finally caught it. It certainly wasn’t the offer for the pill that could potentially cause a fat man to shrink at an alarming rate like Thinner. No, this commercial was decidedly aimed at women.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yH-vECck2ZE%5D

It turns out, if you’re a man, then the best way to sell your weight loss product is to start by emphasizing the incredible breakthrough that they’re giving away for free; but if you’re a woman, you first need to feel like shit about your body.

Sad Lady 1: I’m going to lose weight someday.
Sad Lady 2: I’ll look good in a bikini someday.
Sad Lady 3: I’ll feel better about my body someday.
Sad Lady 4: I’ll fit in my favorite dress again someday.

Happy Problem Solving Lady: When it comes to losing weight, what if you could turn someday into today?

That’s right, fat ladies… we know what you’re thinking and we know how to make that fantasy a reality!

For any woman who really feels like shit about her body (and, sadly, that’s pretty much all of them), the female announcer makes an alluring claim:

AF Plus is now giving out risk free trials of an incredibly effective weight loss supplement that lets you do just that — a proven breakthrough that can cause dramatic weight loss…  Take one capsule of AF Plus just once a day and you can experience maximum weight loss, pounds in days. It’s all natural, safe and healthy. But if your weight loss with AF Plus is too dramatic, please decrease use and only take it every other day. [emphasis mine]

Sound familiar? It should.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9tBUui-Xis%5D

This is a different version of the ad I heard around Christmas. It no longer specifically mentioned that it was for men. But same basic claim:

An extremely powerful weight loss supplement is being given out to listeners in this area on a strict first come first serve basis. You must be between the ages of 25 and 65 and need to lose at least 30 pounds. Please call now, only if you qualify. This product is proven and can cause extreme weight loss, so supplies are limited. It’s called Final Trim. Take two capsules just once a day as directed and you can experience maximum weight loss, pounds in days.

The Final Trim commercial is even bolder than the one for AF Plus. For one, it implies that it can help you lose 30 pounds or more. As I’m sure you’re all sick of hearing by now, the average weight lost on most diets after a year (excluding the majority who lose no weight or gain weight) is between 5% and 10% starting weight. Very few people lose more than 10%, and even less lose more than 20%. A 300 pound person losing 30 pounds would be 10%. If you weigh less than that, your percentage rises, along with the improbability that you’ll actually accomplish a 30-pound loss.

And yet the Final Trim commercial is sufficiently vague enough to allow anyone of any size to believe that if they think they need to lose 30 pounds, then Final Trim is the answer. Statistically speaking, that is complete and utter bullshit for all but the fattest of the fat. The other thing to consider is that this 5-10% figure applies to most hypocaloric and/or macronutrient-specific diet and exercise. AF Plus and Final Trim claim to go above and beyond that.

At best, what Final Trim and AF Plus want to convince consumers of is that these products make weight loss greater, easier, and more successful. But at their worst, they imply that their products work even if you don’t change your diet or exercise. After all, if Final Trim or AF Plus were *GASP* placebos, then nobody would buy their snake oil, would they?

So, I decided to call the 800 numbers provided and find out what proof there actually is. I mean, if your commercial says your product is “proven,” then surely they’ve got said proof on hand for curious consumers.

I called AF Plus first and was greeted by the same woman from the ad, who wanted me to give her a credit card number to cover just shipping and handling. I attempted to barter with the lady with beaver teeth and skunk pelts, but she wouldn’t bite (you can hear the whole charade here, if you want the full experience).

The 800 number is essentially an extended pitch leading up to the request for your credit card number, which are still part of the advertising claims being made by the company or companies behind these products. I’ll bold the most blatant claims:

Because AF Plus can cause dramatic weight loss, supplies are limited. That’s why we’ve reserved risk free trials for callers who need to lose 30 pounds or more for legitimate reasons [ed. note: as opposed to those who want to lose 30 pounds or more for illegitimate reasons?]. The announcement that AF Plus is finally available to public has generated such overwhelming demand that we’ve set up this AF Plus trial order line to give everyone who calls in time a trial reservation code that matches them up with one of these last 100 trials for this radio airing. Your trial reservation code is 82.

I bolded that last bit in there because I love how desperately this number tries to convince potential consumers that “Oh no, there are only 100 trials left, so I better get some free fat burning pills so I can lose 30 pounds or more for legitimate reasons!” My trial reservation code was 82, which implies that I’m the 82nd person to claim the last 100 trials.

O noes

Okay, but there’s more to their claims that we need to be aware of before we know what kind of proof we need to be asking for. Here’s the second set of claims made in the AF Plus robocall:

AF Plus is an all-natural weight loss supplement containing extract of the Brazilian acai berry, which has been featured on major television shows because of it’s powerful health and weight loss benefits. Best of all, one capsule lasts an entire day. That’s 24 hours of fat burning power. With the metabolism-boosting benefits of AF Plus, you can keep eating your favorite foods and still lose pounds and inches. In fact, we guarantee it.

That last bit I just want to emphasize because the guarantee is supposed to represent the company’s confidence in its product,  but how can you guarantee a product you’re giving away free? Do they refund you the shipping and handling fee?

Anyway, I called the Final Trim hotline as well and, except for a man’s voice, it was nearly identical in message and tone. Final Trim is “finally available to the public”; is made of konjac root, which was “featured on major television shows because of it’s powerful health and weight loss benefits”; has “metabolism-boosting formula helps you shed body fat more quickly”; and, most importantly, claims “you can keep eating your favorite foods and still lose pounds and inches.” And, of course, they guarantee it.

Also, this: “We’ve set up this Final Trim trial order line to give everyone who calls in time a trial reservation code that matches them up with one of these last 100 trials for this radio airing. Your trial reservation code is 82.” WHAT A COINKIDINK!!! What are the fucking odds that I would be the 82nd person to order the last 100 free trials of both breakthrough weight loss supplements. Is it my fucking birthday or what?

Now, here’s the thing about these additional claims being made on behalf of AF Plus and Final Trim: there’s certain shit that you cannot say as a weight loss company, and one of those is that by taking their product, you can eat whatever the fuck you want and still lose weight. It’s deceptive, and it recently cost Sensa (a company I previously skewered) millions. Check out the headline:

FTC

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a summation that includes the best operation name ever:

“Operation Failed Resolution” is part of the FTC’s ongoing effort to stop misleading claims for products promoting easy weight loss and slimmer bodies.  The marketers of Sensa, who exhorted consumers to “sprinkle, eat, and lose weight” – will pay $26.5 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they deceived consumers with unfounded weight-loss claims and misleading endorsements.  The FTC will make these funds available for refunds to consumers who bought Sensa.

In the same press release, the FTC announced another settlement with a company called LeanSpa for $7.3 million. LeanSpa was behind a lot of those online “One bizarre secret” acai berry ads that were so ubiquitous a year ago. Like AF Plus and Final Trim, LeanSpa offered their product free for the nominal cost of shipping and handling, but with LeanSpa “many consumers ended up paying $79.99 for the trial, and for recurring monthly shipments of products that were hard to cancel.” Customers said they were charged before they even received the trial sample or before the 14-day trial period was up. Like AF Plus and Final Trim, LeanSpa offered a “100% Satisfaction Guarantee,” but LeanSpa’s turned out to be bogus. Most importantly, like AF Plus and Final Trim, LeanSpa made “unsupported claims that consumers could lose a significant amount of weight quickly; and falsely stating that the claims were clinically proven.”

The first two issues are customer related: charging customers for products they don’t want and not honoring their guarantee. I cannot personally confirm or deny either of those problems, but I sure as hell can confirm that last pair of issues: whether the product makes a person lose a significant amount of weight quickly and whether their claims were clinically proven.

Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, is pretty damned clear about what these January scams are all about: “Resolutions to lose weight are easy to make but hard to keep. And the chances of being successful just by sprinkling something on your food, rubbing cream on your thighs, or using a supplement are slim to none. The science just isn’t there.”

The FTC has a site dedicated to acai berry scam sites that reads like a warning against AF Plus and Final Trim. In fact, the FTC’s advertising guide for the dietary supplement industry reads like a warning against these radio ads, especially given Rich’s comment on weight loss supplements:

Claims that do not match the science, no matter how sound that science is, are likely to be unsubstantiated. Advertising should not exaggerate the extent, nature, or permanence of the effects achieved in a study, and should not suggest greater scientific certainty than actually exists.

So how does the FTC determine whether an ad crosses the line? This is the advice they give advertisers:

To determine whether an ad complies with FTC law, it is first necessary to identify all express and implied claims that the ad conveys to consumers. Once the claims are identified, the scientific evidence is assessed to determine whether there is adequate support for those claims… When identifying claims, advertisers should not focus just on individual phrases or statements, but rather should consider the ad as a whole, assessing the “net impression” conveyed by all elements of the ad, including the text, product name, and depictions. [emphasis mine]

And what is the net impression of the radio ads and robocall? We’re “guaranteed” by the makers of Final Trim and AF Plus that both products are “incredibly effective” and “extremely powerful” weight loss supplement; are “a proven breakthrough that can cause dramatic weight loss”; cause “maximum weight loss, pounds in days” and that results could be “too dramatic”; are for people who “need to lose at least 30 pounds or more”; have “powerful health and weight loss benefits”; and have “metabolism-boosting benefits” meaning that “you can keep eating your favorite foods and still lose pounds and inches.”

That’s a mighty bold impression to create, with peer-reveewed evidence on acai berry or konjac root offering tepid support for the weight loss benefits (5% of starting weight seems to be the greatest boast). I’ve searched PubMed and plan to do a follow-up post discussing the results of both. For now, we’re going to deal with strictly the evidence that exists for Final Trim and AF Plus, which is none.

How do I know?

I called them up.

Stay tuned for the next installment on Thursday, in which I confront the company behind Final Trim and AF Plus from the humble Customer Service Representative to the man who told me that he answers questions on behalf of the company’s founder.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2014 2:48 pm

    Reblogged this on Sly Fawkes and commented:
    I don’t remember the one they’re blabbing about on the station I listen to, and it might even be this one. The ad goes: “Men! If you need to lose weight, the first thing you need to do is not use a women’s weight loss product, because those cause you to lose muscle, and you don’t want to lose your well earned muscle!”
    That’s right, gents. Underneath your big old Santa Claus belly lies a set of ripped, Captain America abs, and when this product gets through with you, you’ll be busting out of your old clothes Hulk-style, with your new ripped musculature!
    REAL women, on the other hand, do NOT have muscle under their girly flab. Being like them would make you a girly man and stuff!
    Agh–my eyes! They’re rolling into the back of my head! Somebody help me!

    • February 13, 2014 9:15 am

      LOL. Watch out there, Cie. According to one of this site’s recent commenters, if you point out that the world runs on sexism it’s exactly like you’ve applauded sexism yourself!!11

  2. Jennifer Hansen permalink
    February 12, 2014 2:25 am

    I got curious and looked up “konjac root.” It is a tropical Asian root vegetable that is called konnyaku in Japan, hence “konjac root.” Konnyaku can be made into, among other things, a gelatin that is so stiff it can be cut into noodles or made into fruit chews. Apparently it doesn’t have much flavor of its own, being used mainly for texture.

    Now. Konnyaku is extremely high in fiber and provides very little food energy; in other words, it tends to go right through you. (Presumably, this effect is not severe, or people wouldn’t be cooking with konnyaku in traditional cuisine!) For this reason it is sometimes used like Metamucil. And apparently, there are people out there who take fiber supplements because they think that pooping a lot will make them thin . . . ?

    • February 12, 2014 9:48 am

      Jennifer,
      You’re spot on. I noticed many studies on this very subject regarding konjac during my research. And, indeed, weight loss products have a history of using laxative effects to induce weight loss (Olestra, anyone?). But even with it’s pooptastic properties, it still doesn’t give much of an advantage to dieters, just like acai. The thing is, acai and konjac may have some wonderful health benefits, but I’m highly skeptical that drying them out and crushing them into a powder that you swallow whole is somehow as effective or more effective than regularly eating the raw versions. But there is this perception that companies can “medicinize” healthy foods and turn them into potent, herbal pharmaceuticals, when there is very little evidence that our bodies get much benefit from nutrients in pill form.

      Peace,
      Shannon

      • Mich permalink
        February 17, 2014 3:08 am

        I agree. There was an episode of Marketplace (in Canada on CBC) several years ago, where this woman wanted to try this “miracle” drug from TV to lose weight. She turned to the show to see if they could help her evaluate it. They paid for the shipping and cost of the product, and she did the 14 day trial of it, like the product said. She basically couldn’t leave the house after that because of the diarrhea. After the 2 weeks, she had gained weight.

        They took the drug to a pharmacist, and he said that it was just a laxative, and not one either. Around 10 different ones were in this liquid “medicine”. The show called the company, got a spiel about how great it is, and they told about the woman who tried it. Basically “she was doing it wrong”.

        When reading your post, I was convinced that that’s what these “new” pills were. I wonder if taking these could be classified as bulimia, or disturbed behaviour.

    • February 13, 2014 9:19 am

      I don’t know if you caught any of the comedy takes on those Haribo Sugar-Free Gummi Bears sold on Amazon. Somebody sent me a link last month. Apparently the sugar substitute they use has a really powerful laxative effect even if you only eat a small amount of the candy. Naturally when you read the customer feedback on Amazon, you inevitably find several people saying that Hey, it sounds like a great way to lose weight fast!! Yarrgh. I hope they’re joking, because a week trapped in the bathroom doesn’t sound worthwhile to me even if it really had some kind of genuine health benefit. DX

      • Kala permalink
        February 13, 2014 11:33 am

        This is actually the case for a lot of sugar-free candies and other such products. Most sugar alcohols have a laxative effect if you eat enough, and can also cause gas and bloating. Your sensitivity to those alcohols may be different than another person’s. So eat such products with care. I grew up with a lot of sugar free products as a child because my mother was diabetic, and I had to learn the hard way.

        I think the average person would be surprised how many products have laxative ingredients. Chicory root extract (top listed ingredient in those popular FiberOne bars), and featured in a TON of other products nowadays (it has a high fiber content), also has a laxative effect.

        • Mich permalink
          February 17, 2014 3:11 am

          I’ve heard that too. Crystal Light in the singles packs has inulin/chicory, plus sucralose (ie. Splenda). I didn’t know that chicory was a laxative, but I have read up on side effects of splenda, and I may have been suffering some of the worse ones. I changed over a year ago back to regular sugar. Before that I had to use equal/splenda/sugar twin because that’s all that was allowed in our house, because my mom was diabetic.

          These “substitutes” and “diet” foods are really scary when you think about it.

  3. LittleBigGirl permalink
    February 12, 2014 6:15 pm

    Shannon, I LOVE your new plan to take the burden of proof back where it belongs: on the bullshit diet industry! If you are looking for additional fish to harpoon, I’ve seen what feels like a bajillion ads on tv for some ‘medicine’ called Lipozene (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5pkH478LBo). The people behind it call themselves the “Obesity Research Institute” – cause if it’s an institute you *know* they are medical professionals! /sarcasm
    They take a very pseudoscientific tone in their commercial with an animated physical rendering of the fat in our bodies as viewed on a computer model with a magic x-ray. They cite a study – but the small print at the bottom admits the ‘miraculous’ weight loss was a total of 3 lbs over 8 weeks. They also claim, as the companies you mentioned do, that you don’t have to change your eating or exercise habits but your belly fat will magically (somehow) melt away. Of course if that were true every other diet and weight loss program/food/pill etc. would be instantly rendered obsolete and it would be the top story of every media outlet in the world. Since this hasn’t happened, I’m gonna just assume they are talking out of their ass. This ad really pisses me off because they act so serious and righteous, like they have SCIENCE on their side. They’re so fucking *benevolent* to have developed this awesome pill to help us poor fatties get rid of our “unattractive” (their word in the commercial) body fat.
    I call bullshit.

  4. vesta44 permalink
    February 13, 2014 1:04 pm

    LittleBigGirl – I’ve seen that Lipozene commercial tons of times. The other one that really gripes me is that one for HydroxyCut. My son used that one for a while, until he had some really bad personality changes with it (anger, mood swings, anxiety attacks). And the fine print on the bottom of the screen that doesn’t stick around long enough to be read says that you still have to restrict calories and exercise in order to lose weight. So yeah, these diet “supplements” aren’t going to do anything but take money out of your pocket and put in the pockets of the charlatans who came up with these “supplements).

  5. Mich permalink
    February 17, 2014 3:16 am

    Atchka, I listened to the robocall: it was the funniest thing I’ve heard in weeks. 😀

    I also wondering: do you really have skunk pelts?

    Vesta: that’s terrible about what happened to your son on those. I think I’ve been both of those supplements on tv (lipozene and hydroxycut). Most drugs and “drugs” seem to have adverse effects on the brain.

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