Psychology of Weight Loss: Why Are Supplement Infomercials So Effective?

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Despite years of public health pronouncements, health class lectures, and admonitions from physicians, it's easy to forget is that restricted-calorie diets and increased exercise regimens produce an e
Despite years of public health pronouncements, health class lectures, and admonitions from physicians, it's easy to forget is that restricted-calorie diets and increased exercise regimens produce an e

A few nights ago, I was up late watching my favorite television program, which, for the sake of honesty, I'll admit isn't a show at all, but actually the infomercials that flood the airwaves right around 2 AM. Choosing a favorite among the array of glorious wares that apparently appeal only to insomniacs is a bit of a Sophie's choice, but these days if I had to pick one, I'd lean towards Lipozene.

Lipozene is (consistent with the predominant motif around that time of night), more or less, magic. Or at least that's what the commercials would have you believe. Their bold-faced claim is that if you take Lipozene a few times a day, you'll shed a significant amount of weight ("400% more than with a placebo!" according to their own trial) without dieting or exercise. And if somehow you're not convinced by the results of their very official-seeming study, then certainly you'll be swayed by testimonials from luminaries such as ex-NFL quarterback Rodney Peete and his wife, 1990s sitcom star Holly Robinson Peete, who are on board to rave about how Lipozene helped them lose weight while eating hamburgers all the time. Now that's the kind of world I want to live in. Somebody order me a quarter-pounder with cheese and a side of Lipozene.

Claims like Lipozene's aren't new, novel, or particularly noteworthy. The active ingredient in Lipozene, glucomannan, is a dietary fiber that's most commonly used as a thickener or emulsifier. Glucomannan has been around for decades and has undergirded weight loss products such as Vitacost, PediaLean, and many others. The evidence in favor of glucomannan as an effective primary weight loss tool is mixed at best: a 2014 systematic review found no evidence of increased weight loss, and a 2015 meta-analysis actually showed greater BMI decrease in the control group (please, nobody tell Rodney and Holly).2,3

About 10 years ago, a different glucomannan manufacturer was tagged with an Federal Trade Commission complaint alleging misleading advertising (Lipozene's lawyers, to their credit, have managed to carefully walk the fine line between effective advertising and a multimillion dollar lawsuit).4 And anecdotally, it seems as though skepticism abounds: a cursory sweep of the YouTube page for any given Lipozene ad reveals dozens of pseudonymous Cassandras chastising and imploring their brethren not to ignore common sense and the obvious importance of diet and exercise to achieving a healthy weight. We must have taken a wrong turn somewhere if the YouTube comment section has emerged as the voice of reason.

Yet, by all accounts, Lipozene is a runaway success, having sold more than 25 million bottles and continuing to command my attention well into the wee hours of the morning. What gives?

That question has 2 answers, I think: one simple, and one a bit more complicated. The simple answer is that there's always going to be a slice of the population looking for the shortcut, the quick fix, the easy way out, no matter how implausible the claim. It's certainly not illegal, and probably not even unethical, to cater to this group. As long as Lipozene and their competitors manage to avoid running afoul of the US Food and Drug Administration and Federal Communications Commission, more power to them. This is America, and, with apologies to H.L. Mencken, nobody ever went broke overestimating the laziness of the American public. But that only accounts for a few of us, and doesn't do much to explain why weight loss products of such obviously dubious value are so resilient in the marketplace.

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