Once upon a time, a long time ago, the fitness industry was a tough one to get rich in. As the decades wore on, however, a combination of concerted marketing efforts and increasingly calorically dense but sedentary lifestyles among Americans conspired to change all that. As we got fatter, our culture worked to convince us that the answer to our weight gain wasn’t more work — it was spending more money. Capitalism is rad, folks, but it’s not always looking out for your best interests.
Supplements, as we’ve discussed at length, aren’t all bad — some are legitimately helpful and even beneficial to your overall health, but in today’s market, it can be tough to spot the legitimate products amid a sea of pseudoscience and folks that are convinced that their anecdotal experiences supersede clinical research. Fitness frauds are a part of a self-fulfilling cycle; where marketing convinces you of something, you pay for it, and then feel inclined to defend it when its questioned in a public way. Unfortunately, the result is a society full of people that have grown too cynical to trust scientific consensus, and are instead inclined to fortify their positions in whatever camp they chose. Whether it’s homeopathic nonsense or a specific type of workout, people don’t like to be told that they’re wrong. If you don’t believe me, just ask a Thrive customer what that weight loss sticker they’re proudly touting is really doing for them — weight loss, contrary to popular belief, is not achieved via osmosis.
For long time OMF readers, you’re already aware that the nutrition and supplement industry isn’t required to vet their claims, or even their products, through the American Food and Drug Administration. That means they can claim their supplements contain anything they want, and they can claim that their supplements do anything they want — and if it doesn’t kill anybody, the FDA won’t step in to challenge them.
The nutrition and fitness industries aren’t really out to get you fit, they’re out to get your money. If you’re looking for evidence to support that, look no further than a comparison of American obesity rates versus industry growth in both fields. Since the year 2000 (which, frighteningly, was already 18 years ago), the supplement industry has nearly doubled from $17.2 billion in 2000 to $36.1 billion last year. In that same time span, the United States saw a massive expansion in the number of gym and health clubs opened and massive growth in the number of Americans paying for access to them, with a massive 57.3 million Americans belonging to a gym in 2016. Revenue has increased dramatically in the gym industry year over year as well, with a 7.2 percent increase (from $25.8 billion to $27.6 billion) in just the past year or so alone.
And yet American obesity rates continue to either stay stagnant or increase, depending on the study you cite. Last year, Americans spent $63.7 billion on gym memberships and supplements, and on average, we still didn’t lose any weight.
We’re all guilty of playing a part in these statistics. We fall prey to gimmicks, we fall behind on our goals, we’re human and we make mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with being wrong, just as long as we take corrective action. When it comes to fitness, that means equipping yourself to spot a fraud when you see one, so you can save your fitness dollars for the stuff that might actually help. Just like vetting news sources though, it’s not always easy to spot well-crafted disinformation. These guidelines won’t guarantee you never fall prey to a fitness hoax, but they can help put you in the position to think
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
We all see those advertisements that promise us to offer us that “one simple trick” to accomplishing our fitness goals, and chances are that we’ve all been tempted by them at one point or another. When you see something marketed as miraculous, be skeptical — if there really was a pill that could magically melt the fat away, don’t you think that would have made the news? Wouldn’t there be packs of wildly fit and attractive humans running around touting their successes?
When it comes to weight loss “miracles,” use the same approach you might when you see pills advertising making your penis bigger. If it were true, you’d know it, because every guy you know would already own stock in the company.
All kidding aside, when you see something offering you seemingly impossible results, approach it with care and do your research. Chances are it’s just another fad that won’t lighten anything up but your wallet.
You can’t burn fat off specific parts of your body.
Spot reduction is among the most pervasive fitness myths around, and I get it. When I was working as a trainer, one of the most common complaints I’d get from female clients as they began losing weight was that they wanted to shrink their stomachs, butts, or thighs, but instead worked their boobs off. Your body determines where it’s going to store fat first and where it’s going to burn fat first — it doesn’t matter what you wrap around your stomach or what kind of pills you take, the only way to lose fat from specific parts of your body is to burn fat in general, and keep at it until your body catches up.
There are some exercises you can do to tone the muscle beneath a layer of fat that can help you carry your weight in a more flattering way, but at the end of the day, doing a million crunches won’t shrink your belly fat, it’ll grow your abdominal muscles and probably make that pooch stick out a bit further. Any product or supplement promising to burn fat in a specific part of your body is likely a hoax.
Look out for ambiguous numbers
“This product burns 70% more fat!” “With our system you’ll lose weight 50% faster!”
I often emphasize the importance of clinical research when it comes to knowing which supplements are worth a damn and which aren’t, but you’ve got to be careful about how you interpret claims that seem like they’re derived from a scientific basis too. When a company claims you can lose 50% more fat using their product you should ask yourself, 50% more when compared to what? Just like the Pop-Science studies we see making headlines all the time (which are also often utter bullshit), people tend to have a habit of making ludicrous leaps when it comes to citing studies. No, chocolate won’t make you better in bed and no, smelling farts won’t help you beat cancer — and no, that belly band isn’t going to make you lose weight any sooner either.
When a study is funded by a company, there’s a high likelihood of bias, but even quality studies can be misrepresented with creative word choices. If people using this product (and participating in an extensive diet and exercise routine) did burn fat 50% faster than people in the control group (which were fed only doughnuts and were forced to stay in bed for three months), marketing professionals will be happy to leave out the exercise part of the successful group and the doughnut part of the tubby one — they’re not technically lying, they’re just omitting the actual variables at play.
Be skeptical of exaggerated language that aims to manage your perception
One of the most common facets of a fitness scam is the use of qualifying language that aims to tell you how to feel about a claim. Words and phrases like “secret formula” or “breakthrough discovery” are intended to give you a sense that the results being touted can only come from the product touting them — and are offering something different from the laundry list of previous scams produced by the same company. Loaded language is a valuable tool in marketing, but as athletes, we need to read between the lines when it comes to advertising and promotional materials. Skip over qualifying language that tells you what to think of their claims, and assess the claims alone. If the claims also seem too good to be true, see rule number one above.
Product images courtesy of the FTC
Feature image courtesy of the author