Nutrition Column – Too Good to be True? Red Flags for Weight-Loss Claims

"Lose 30 pounds in just 30 days!" "Eat all the foods you love and still lose weight!" "Lose weight while you sleep!"  

With the growing problem of obesity in the United States, new weight-loss plans and products are constantly emerging, often with advertising that makes questionable claims and false promises. It is easy to believe such claims when we see "after" photos of someone who has reportedly found success with a plan, especially when other diets have failed. Too often, however, the products advertised do not deliver the promised results and all that is lost is the $39.95 or more the person put out to get the product.

The Federal Trade Commission reports that more than half of all weight-loss ads make at least one false or unsubstantiated claim. They have developed a "Red Flag" educational campaign to help media outlets screen out those weight-loss product ads that make bogus claims. The list also makes a good checklist for anyone looking for a weight loss plan and not wanting to waste his or her time and money on a program whose weight loss claims are false or questionable.

According to the FTC, a weight loss claim is too good to be true if it says the product will cause or result in the following:

– Weight loss of two or more pounds per week for a month or more without reducing caloric intake and/or increasing physical activity. Meaningful weight loss does require consuming fewer calories and/or increasing exercise. Ads that promise substantial weight loss without diet or exercise are simply false.

– Substantial weight loss no matter what or how much the consumer eats. There’s no way around it. It’s impossible to eat unlimited amounts of food and still lose weight.

– Permanent weight loss, even when the user stops using the product. Permanent weight loss can only occur when the person makes permanent lifestyle changes in eating and activity habits.

– Substantial weight loss by blocking the absorption of fat or calories. The fact is, no fat blocker can block enough fat or calories to cause lots of weight loss. Even legitimate fat blockers must be used with a reduced-calorie diet to work.

– Safe weight loss of more than 3 pounds per week for four or more weeks, without medical supervision. Losing more than 3 pounds per week over multiple weeks can result in gallstones and other health complications, so it is important to be under the supervision of a medical doctor.

– Substantial weight loss by wearing the advertised product on the body or rubbing it into the skin. Diet patches, topical creams and lotions, body wraps, special clothing, rings, earrings, body belts and shoe inserts are all examples of products sold to disrupt the formation of fat cells or somehow cause weight loss. Such products may have psychological value but don’t cause weight loss by themselves.

– Substantial weight loss for all users. In reality, no one product works for everyone.

The FTC noted one other claim that is not scientifically feasible, but which they did not include in their top seven red flag claims because it is not used as often as the other seven claims. That claim is that consumers who use the advertised product will lose weight only from those parts of the body where they wish to lose weight.

For more information on how to spot a fraudulent weight loss claim or to report a potentially fraudulent claim, call toll-free 1-877-FTC-HELP or use the complaint form at

by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension