Thursday, January 19, 2012

Avoiding Avoidance; The Skinny on Weight-Loss Supplements

[Note: Adapted from an article which originally appeared in Natural Products INSIDER Supplement Perspectives]

In marketing geared to weight loss supplements, avoidance language and strategies have been ubiquitous. These “Don’t eat this!” or “Don’t do that!” messages are also dis-empowering for consumers, at best, and dangerous, at worst.

Some industry members will remember the mid-1990s thermogenic ads on double-page spreads in leading consumer magazines promoting products with ma huang and chromium. Other ads touted extracts of Garcinia cambogia and guarana (i.e., avoiding energy loss or fatigue) --- while there were also the “water pill herbal formula” diuretics (i.e., avoiding water retention), as well.

We all know how well inappropriate use of stimulants and diuretics went, now don’t we?

Today, falsely marketed as a “new” ingredient in body-building circles, Beta-PEA (Beta-Methoxy- Phenylethylamine) was originally featured in mid-1990s weight loss ads as a thermogenic “feel good” compound.

While some ads seemed to suggest that nothing else needed to be done lifestyle-wise to lose weight, other products (such as meal replacements) were geared to restore nutrients for people who were on severely calorie-restricted diets (i.e., avoiding food!).

Avoidance diets targeting specific food groups also became greatly popular, including the Atkins’ low-carb/high-protein revolution in the early 2000s. These carb-avoidance diets, often inexpertly followed, led to cases of hyperproteinemia and ketosis.

Today, there are still a number of avoidance diets and products on the market, most of which are almost exclusively sold online or via TV promotions, and feature such questionable approaches as:
  • master cleanse diet (avoiding toxins and food!);
  • cabbage soup diet (avoiding almost all nutrients; are they kidding?);
  • salt-free diet (avoiding a critical electrolyte);
  • the HCG [human chorionic gonadotropin] diet (avoiding most food and taking a fertility hormone); and    other water-based or juice-based diet scams.

I won’t even hazard a guess as to how long the FDA will allow a fertility hormone (HCG) to be sold as a weight-loss supplement, but probably until there is a tragedy (or 100).

Of course underlying (or offsetting) all of these weight-loss ads are the following truths:
  • People prefer positive calls-to-action and affirmations to negative, avoidance messages, e.g. “Eat healthy!” versus“ Don’t eat that ice cream, you pig!”
  • Avoidance messages are turn-offs, and make us feel like we are missing out on something (or a lot of somethings, given the above diets), so we feel (or we are) deprived.
  • Avoidance diets are often misguided and dangerous.
  • Think: improved body composition instead of “weight loss.”

Takeaway? All of us who manufacture or sell weight loss, or improved body composition, products or ingredients should keep the above in mind as we develop and market these products.

Because what consumers will gain by properly sourced, manufactured, and marketed “weight loss” products is of hefty value, indeed: an opportunity to complement a full, lifestyle approach to healthier body composition and improved self-esteem.

That’s not something to avoid, now is it.  

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