[ The Money Side of Lifeā„¢ ]

Skinny Science: Weight-loss fads that lighten your wallet

By Stephen Ullmer on February 1st, 2009 •

Fat people, fatty foods and fad diets targeted at the ever growing spare-tire-toting population consume ever more room in today's mass media. The United States claims more than 130 million obese or overweight citizens, a staggering figure made worse by the loss of $100 billion to $150 billion in health care costs each year, as reported by U.S. News & World Report. Though it seems that we prefer General Mills to treadmills, as a country we spend $40 billion a year on weight-loss products and services, according to BusinessWeek. All too often we see expansive marketing campaigns for diet pills and celebrity diet crazes that rarely emphasize a balanced diet and regular exercise.

One common diet scheme advocates the metabolic benefits of herbal supplements. Savvy marketers have capitalized on weak FDA regulation of herbal supplements, thereby allowing many ineffective and dangerous supplements to capture valuable shelf space in local health and grocery stores. New FDA regulations will better monitor supplement manufacturers, making sure their products contain what they claim and have no contaminants, but they won't fully go into effect until June 2010. Meanwhile, dietary supplements have become a $22 billion industry, according to The Associated Press.

Other scams include pills that claim to act as fat- and carb-blockers. Technically speaking, such pills may indeed block the absorption of fats and carbs. Unfortunately, as these pills inhibit your ability to absorb common substances into your body, you're likely to offend coworkers with your ensuing flatulence, if the pills work at all.

Ridiculous weight-loss fads are nothing new. Beginning in 1857, Dr. Gustav Zander advocated the use of a belt-driven fat massager that claimed to jiggle away fat. These machines were more than a passing fancy, and "Zander Rooms" actually existed in health clubs for many years. In fact, the Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Virginia paid $50,000 for machines for their Zander Room in 1902 (that's over $1.1 million in 2008 dollars).

This might seem like an antiquated scheme, but similar products called "fat massaging belts" can be found online today, priced as high as $200. Other insane diets included Horace Fletcher's early 20th century diet, which consisted of chewing food almost three dozen times and spitting out the remains, as well as an incredible cigarette diet in the 1920s that predated the Surgeon General's warning.

Many modern diets eschew the weight-loss belts and cigarettes of yesteryear in favor of combining high prices and common sense in a single dietary package. These contemporary diets often encourage consumers to drop weight by limiting their daily caloric intake. This commonsense behavior comes at a substantial price that consumers are apparently quite willing to pay. While the average consumer spends about $40 per week on food, Forbes found that with extra startup costs like program cookbooks, juicers and membership fees, the first week on newer weight-loss programs like The Abs Diet and Weight Watchers can cost from $100 to $385. At this rate, the extra money could be put towards a gym membership and weekly meetings with a personal trainer or nutritionist, rather than a slew of prepackaged meals, points cards, or expensive cookbooks.

Some may believe that certain diets in the marketplace are completely effective, especially with as many tried-and-true believers who swear by their diet of choice. Yet even these results can be explained when one considers that many popular diets advocate portion control or emphasize eating only a particular piece of food at a particular time of day--clearly, the few souls who find themselves able to follow their diet's advice have not discovered a new secret. Rather, they've stumbled upon a simple solution: consume fewer calories on a daily basis than you burn. Whether this balance is accomplished by eating healthier or exercising more, the basic equation is a simple one.

The Bottom Line

Adults need 30 minutes of exercise five times a week, so ride a bike or hit the gym before you shell out hard-earned cash for overpriced and gimmicky diets.

Sources:

webmd.com; boston.com; abcnews.com; foxnews.com; mayoclinic.com; fitness.gov; books.google.com; bls.gov; usnews.com; businessweek.com; healthandbeautydelivered.com; jennycraig.com; nih.gov; ucsf.edu; usda.gov; nutrisystem.com; forbes.com; atkins.com