How to Spot a Weight-Loss Scam

When you're trying to lose weight, it's not always easy to tell the difference between beneficial products and scams. Don't be a victim of clever marketing tricks that don't deliver on real results. Sometimes, the very advertising messages that make us feel good about a product are actually red flags to watch out for. 

Do any of these phrases look familiar?

"...clinically proven to burn more fat..."

"...backed by science..."

"...laboratory tested to provide weight loss results..."

Scientific claims are intended to instill consumer confidence. They are often used to sell diet pills and other products that have not actually been proven effective. In the worst-case scenario, these products are potentially unsafe. Don't risk wasting your time, money, or safety on scam products. Protect yourself and achieve your goals by watching out for these common warning signs.

Ambiguous Use of Percents

A woman's feet standing on scale

Blend Images / John Fedele / Getty Images

When diet product manufacturers want to grab your attention they often boast impressive scientific results. Advertisers may sugarcoat poor lab results by using statistics with ambiguous percentages.

"...burns 30% more fat..."

"...burns 75% more calories..."

"...lose weight 50% faster..."

At first glance, those numbers may look impressive. But what do they really mean? Without essential background information, it's impossible to understand the basis for those conclusions. When two products are being compared, you need to know the details of each in order to evaluate the claims.

For example, a diet pill manufacturer may claim that their product helped people lose weight 75% faster in studies. The question is: 75% faster than what?

Perhaps the study compared people who were taking the diet pill while also following a weight loss and exercise program. If their results are being compared to subjects who did not take the pill or make any lifestyle changes, this is not an equivalent comparison. As a result, the claims being made would be misleading and unreliable.

Instead of going by percents, compare actual numbers. For example, a product we reviewed helped exercisers burn 6% more calories during a workout. However, the actual number of extra calories burned was only about 18. Such a low number is not nearly enough to make a significant difference in a real-life weight loss program.

A Long List of Unrelated Studies

Another way that diet pill companies try to gain consumer trust is by citing clinical studies. Perhaps a product website provides information on the science behind their product. Be wary if you see a long list of clinical studies. It is possible that all of the studies support the product, but often they don't.

If the list of clinical studies is exceptionally long, the studies cited may be unrelated to the product being sold. Outdated studies, or clinical trials performed on animals, are not reliable ways to assess effectiveness. Unfortunately, these can be easy to miss in a long list of trials. Studies that contradict the product's efficacy may even be listed with the assumption that consumers won't bother to take a closer look.

Why do manufacturers list all of those studies if they don't actually support the product being sold? Perhaps they assume that the consumer won't take the time to click on links and read the actual research. After all, who has time to read 50 studies about a weight loss herb? The consumer assumes that the long list of studies is sufficient evidence of a good product. In fact, it may be nothing more than a long list of studies.

"Significant" Results

The manufacturers of weight-loss products may use the word "significant" to describe their product's benefits. This claim can be a red flag:

"...laboratory tested and proven to provide significant results..."

That statement seems more impressive than it really is. Here's why.

When scientists conduct research and write up their results for publication, they use the word "significant" differently than we use it in typical daily ​conversation. Scientists use statistical formulas to determine if research results actually qualify as statistically significant. A very small, microscopic or even fractional result might be considered "significant" according to scientific standards. That doesn't mean that the result should matter to you.

Just because a product has shown a significant result in a lab setting doesn't mean that it will provide any meaningful or even noticeable result in your life. A lab setting is not a real-life setting, and therefore many studies done in these controlled environments can not be generalized to the general public. A smart consumer will ignore the word "significant" and pay attention to important data listed.

Exaggerated Language

Have you seen ads for diet pills or weight-loss products using over-the-top words or phrases?

"...breakthrough treatment..."

"...first of its kind..."

"...exclusive compound..."

"...secret formula..."

Weight loss experts can confirm that no weight loss secrets, magical compounds, or breakthrough treatments really exist when it comes to weight loss. The vast majority of weight loss success stories happen as a result of time-tested lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise and/or working with healthcare professionals.

Refunds With Fine Print

Many weight loss pills and products offer a money-back guarantee. As a consumer, this guarantee provides a sense of security because you (reasonably) assume that you can get your money back if the product doesn't work. But sometimes, the refund policy comes with fine print. Upon further inspection, you may not be able to get your money back at all.

During one review of a product, it took searching through multiple web pages before being able to find the actual terms of the money-back guarantee. As it turns out, the only customers who were eligible to receive a refund were those who purchased under very specific (and narrow) circumstances. 

Always read the small print. If you can't find it, email the company for clarification. Find out if you can get your money back, how long the return window is, exactly how to return the product, and how much money back you will actually receive back. Don't wait until it's too late. Find out this important information before you make your purchase.

How to Protect Yourself From Diet Scams

Not every product or weight loss program is a scam. There are some products that actually do make weight loss easier. Unfortunately, many products don't provide the magnitude of benefits that they are advertising. How can you protect yourself?

Look for the red flags listed above. Then, gather more information. Just because a weight loss product includes a questionable claim, doesn't make it a fraud. You should always ask for more information before you take a chance on a new product.

Gather information in a few different ways:

  • Ask the manufacturer for more information. Look for the "Contact Us" tab on the website or the phone number in an advertisement. Ask specific questions. If you don't get a specific response, or something seems off to you, walk away.
  • Ask your pharmacist, your doctor, a dietitian, or a certified trainer. Your doctor is always the best resource for specific information about pills, supplements, and weight loss programs. You can also talk to your pharmacist or other health professionals to get more insight.
  • Use credible online sources. If you need information about herbal supplements for weight loss, check the National Institutes of Health Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets. This database is updated regularly and provides unbiased information about weight-loss products.

A Word From Verywell

As much as we hate to admit it, most of us know that the best way to lose weight and maintain weight loss is to use old-fashioned common sense methods. Sustainable weight loss takes time. Even if shortcuts seem to work, they don't typically provide lasting benefits. Choose nutritious foods, eat mindfully, and find physical activity that you enjoy and can be consistent with. If you are struggling with your weight or your health, seek professional assistance. Focus on your health first, and never put yourself at risk just to lose weight.

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