Peddling false hope

by Staff
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HETTINGER, N.D. — While no diets in recent years have enjoyed the meteoric success and wide ranging impact of the Atkins Diet from earlier in the decade, fad diets are alive and well, according to the Healthy Weight Network.

The group, led by a nutritionist associated with the University of North Dakota School of Medicine, tracks fad diets and weight loss products and offers a series of Slim Chance Awards annually to highlight "both the hidden dangers of diets and supplements that often contain unknown ingredients and sometimes potent drugs, and the merely ridiculous."

Francie M. Berg, who heads the Healthy Weight Network and established the awards 20 years ago, said describing 2008 as a "typical year" in weight loss would be too facile a description.

Ms. Berg, who in addition to her work as a nutritionist is an adjunct professor at the U.N.D. medical school, said, "This year’s awards go to an infamous huckster of diet infomercials, known for his outrageous disregard of injunctions against him; $139 body-shaping jeans impregnated with substances that supposedly reduce cellulite; a pill that’s ‘proven’ to help your belly fat vanish; and a dangerous starvation diet launched recklessly on the Internet with promises of safe, fast and permanent weight loss."
Winners of the 20th annual Slim Chance Awards were:

Most outrageous claim — Kevin Trudeau, a producer of infomercials. According to the Healthy Weight Network, Mr. Trudeau was fined over $5 million in August by the Federal Trade Commission, and he was banned from doing infomercials for three years. Noting that free speech laws generally protect those advocating even outlandish diets, the network noted that Mr. Trudeau was found by the F.T.C. guilty of "willful efforts" to deceive.

"Trudeau told listeners they could easily follow the diet protocol at home, even though his book calls for human growth hormone injections and colonics that must be done by a licensed practitioner," the network said. The group added that Mr. Trudeau first was charged with false and misleading diet infomercials in 1998, was charged with false claims and fined $2 million in 2004 and was subject in 2007 to a contempt action stating that he "misled thoughts with fall claims for his weight loss book ‘in flagrant violation’ of court orders."

Worst Gimmick — Skineez jeans. A piece of clothing supposed to help fight cellulite, Skineez jeans are "impregnated with" the chemicals retinol and chitosan, a shellfish product once claimed to help cut fat absorption in the stomach, the network said.

"Friction between the jeans and skin supposedly triggers release of the substance that is said to work on fat when absorbed through the skin," the report continued. "Reportedly a big hit in Europe, the ‘smart fabric’ is also used in lingerie. Ironically, the creators of Skineez, Cloths for a Cause, profess to raise funds for breast cancer."

Worst claim — AbGONE. Throughout the year, full page ads were placed in daily newspapers describing AbGONE as "proven to promote pot belly loss." The ads claim AbGONE raises "fat metabolism," promotes appetite suppression and inhibits future abdominal fat deposits.

"These are drug claims that, if true, would alter the body’s regulation," the network said. "But unlike drugs, these pills are sold as food supplements."

In addition to featuring the "obligatory before and after shots," packages feature a chart showing AbGONE allows dieters to lose 5 times the reduction in fat mass, 4 times the cut in body mass index and four times more weigh loss than placebo.

Worst product: Kimkins diet. A web site established by Heidi "Kimmer Diaz" boasted that members given access to the Kimkins diet could lose 5% of their body weight in 10 days and that Ms. Diaz had lost 198 lbs in 11 months, showing impressive "after photos." The diet was the subject of a June 2007 cover story in Woman’s World magazine, and PayPal records show the Kimkins site collected $1.2 million that month. Users began complaining of chest pain, hair loss, heart palpitations, irritability and menstrual irregularities. The network said the side effects are not surprising for a diet giving subject 500 calories per day, deficient in many nutrients. In a lawsuit, after photos promoted by Ms. Diaz were found to be not of the subjects (including Ms. Diaz) but of women in a Russian mail order bride site. A judge has allowed litigants to freeze some of Ms. Diaz’s assets.

Ms. Berg also leads a task force for Weight loss Abuse, part of the National Council Against Health Fraud. The task force co-sponsors the awards.

"Today’s economic downturn can remind us how foolish it is to waste money on unsafe, ineffective and energy-draining weight loss efforts," she said.

The awards are intended to shine a light on diets and products that prey on the public’s desire to lose weight, Ms. Berg said. She said the awards help lead up to "Rid the World of Fad Diets and Gimmicks Day," which falls during Healthy Weight Week, Jan. 18-24.

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