My local Pharmacy advertised a presentation on a weight-loss program “that works”. I booked in and soon found myself sitting alongside some well nourished people listening to the spiel of a so-called “Nutritionist” who was pushing packets of flavoured powders and a range of dodgy looking supplements. He also marched a number of people out to tell their story. They all raved about the program and why wouldn’t they? Between them they had lost the weight of a small horse.
Now meal replacements have their place and are often recommended for people to lose weight before surgery. If you desperately need a new knee joint, the debilitating pain you feel with every step you take undoubtedly offers considerable motivation to happily sit in the corner sucking up your vanilla milkshake through a straw while your friends soak up a few bottles of shiraz while hogging into a scrumptious roast dinner and cheesecake feast. However, while people in their droves are wearing a path to these pharmacies, research on the long-term effectiveness of meal replacement programs is both limited and inconclusive. Commercial Aussie programs have not been studied at all, so when membership runs out and the leftover shakes have found their way to the back of the kitchen cupboard, weight undoubtedly sneaks back on. Personally the thought of drinking one or two milkshakes per day for the rest of my life would send me straight to the fridge for chockies and cheese.
After the presentation I asked about natural remedies for weight loss. I was directed to the on-duty Naturopath who informed me that the pharmacy stocked over twenty different products and I soon staggered out the door with armfuls of brochures. Now the product names don’t always include words like trim, slim and fat but also use terms like thermogenic, body-sculpting, detox, carb-burning, calorie-burning, weight loss accelerators, sugar balancing – and contained even more weird claims such as “strengthen kidney organ meridian energy to supply healthy liver Qi”.
The products are pads, patches, pills, sprays, slimming teas and coffees, and include homeopathic remedies. The claims indicate that they perform a range of miracles, from stripping the fat off your body as you sleep (no exercise or diet required) to making you feel you have eaten a four-course meal. There was also a product for detoxing various body parts (including your eyeballs) through the bottoms of your feet by applying herbal pads to specific reflexology points. Of course no toxins were identified by name.
Sponsors with the biggest marketing budget continue to claim theirs is the ‘biggest selling weight loss product’, which has nothing to do with kilos. All these products had avoided scientific scrutiny because the Sponsors merely claim they are ‘Traditional’ – which means that scientific proof is not required (1). Over 1000 products with AUST L listing numbers are claiming to help with weight loss (2); all totally useless but definitely guaranteed to help you lose weight from your wallet.
After the Complaints Resolution Panel (CRP) received a steady stream of advertising complaints on these products (3), the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) decided to take some action. In September 2007 the CRP commenced sending these complaints to the Office of Complementary Medicines (OCM) because the TGA had “undertaken to develop specific guidelines for Listed medicines indicated for weight loss”. In November 2007, the Director, OCM, stated that he had these new guidelines (which were written by an Obesity Expert) and that they would soon be released for comment – however, over twelve months later nothing has happened.
There is no magic bullet to solve the obesity epidemic, but millions of dollars are filling cash registers of imaginative scamsters and enterprising organisations that at best only offer short-term solutions primarily to those who can least afford them. With efficacy not required, the number of dodgy weight-loss products continues to grow. By delaying the release of the new guidelines, isn’t the TGA contributing to the epidemic; and by selling these products are the pharmacies not doing so as well?
1. Guidelines for levels and kinds of evidence to support indication and claims (page 7) www.tga.gov.au/docs/pdf/tgaccevi.pdf
2. Commercialism, choice and consumer protection: regulation of complementary medicines in Australia
3 Complaints Resolution Panel - Complaints