Are Diet Reviews Worth Your Time?

There’s a lot at stake for dieters—and the huge U. S. weight loss market—so reviews of diet supplements, products, and programs matter. If a review is done well, it is almost certainly worth your time...as long as you know what you’re looking for.
Are Diet Reviews Worth Your Time? Learn What to Look For

The Skinny on Diet Reviews

As of May 2017, the U. S. Weight Loss Market is worth a staggering $66 billion. [1]

The Pew Research Center found that most people—82 percent in fact—check out online reviews before spending a dime on almost anything. Most of us spend quite a bit of our time looking up what others say about you-name-it; hotel rooms, products, movies, recipes, restaurants. People seek out advice, especially when they’re about to plunk down some big bucks, or even not-so-big bucks. It’s still your hard-earned money, every dime. [2]

Well-known and influential company websites have created a whole industry out of providing—and in some cases, selling—reviews:

Americans spend billions every year trying to lose weight—and by 2020 will spend hundreds of billions of dollars.

  • Does that plumber show up on time and fix leaks for a reasonable price?
  • Does that hotel room have a kitchenette, so you can prepare food instead of spending all your vacation money on dining out?
  • Is that very expensive mattress really worth the price tag?
  • It’s got a great cast, but is that new movie any good?
  • Want to try a vegetarian dish but not sure your kids will go for it?
  • What are the best times of day to avoid that theme park’s ride lines?
  • Is that new fine dining restaurant worth the cost?

We count on reviews now more than ever. Forget advertising; just ask your girlfriend about the latest anti-aging face cream; she’s tried it. People care about others’ experiences and opinions on a product or service. And they tend to trust a paying customer’s review over a paid endorser’s or company advertising.

We especially count on reviews about diets and weight loss supplements, pills, products and programs—to the tune of over 6 million searches a month on “weight loss,” per Google. Americans spend billions every year trying to lose weight—and by 2020 will spend hundreds of billions of dollars. [3] [4]

So it’s not surprising millions are searching for reviews on weight loss diet programs, diet pills, diet foods, diet exercise programs, fad diets, trendy diets, tried-and-true-diets. We are a nation of overweight and obese people and everyone is looking for the best diet. The diet that in a few weeks will help you lose those twenty pounds it took a year to gain. Or the fifty pounds it took a lifetime to gain.

Heads-up: Not possible. Well, you could do some draconian or unhealthy crash diet and lose twenty, but as sure as the sun will set tonight, each and every one of those pounds will return to home base when you finish the crash. But you don’t want a dangerous and frankly dumb diet; you want a smart one that works. So, you check out the online reviews, looking for a better diet, a new diet, a trustworthy, solid, and—most importantly—effective diet that actually works.

But if you’ve searched at all, chances are you’ve run across diet reviews that just don’t feel right; maybe they’re fake, written by and for a particular product and program.

Or, maybe the review is one written by a competitor brand, with no meat on its bones and full of blah, blah,.

Worse even are so-called reviews that look legitimate but are scams that flat-out lie.

And worse even than that, people fed up with the runaround—confused about what’s real and what’s not—end up being sucked into a scam and wind up paying, both literally and figuratively, for that error in judgment.

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But who to believe? This can be frustrating, especially if you’re like many people who are trying to find a weight-loss solution in their free time. After several hours of reading review after review, many people give up and simply try out the first weight-loss pills they hear about. While the whole process may be somewhat trial-and-error for many people, it’s still important to avoid the scams that flat-out don’t work. And it’s never one-size-fits-all; each of us is wired differently and while our nutritional choices—or rather longtime poor nutritional choices, more likely—are in part to blame, there’s a lot of other reasons people gain excess weight.

Researchers understand this:

Two people can have the same amount of excess weight, they can be the same age, the same socioeconomic class, the same race, the same gender. And yet a treatment that works for one will do nothing for the other.

The problem, researchers say, is that obesity and its precursor — being overweight — are not one disease but instead, like cancer, they are many. “You can look at two people with the same amount of excess body weight and they put on the weight for very different reasons,” said Dr. Arya Sharma, medical director of the obesity program at the University of Alberta. [6]

One of those reasons—or actually several—is our genes.

So far, investigators have found more than 25 genes with such powerful effects that if one is mutated, a person is pretty much guaranteed to become obese, said Dr. Stephen O’Rahilly, head of the department of clinical biochemistry and medicine at Cambridge University. [5] [6]

An analysis of more than 700 weight loss studies found that people see the biggest short-term results when they eat smart. On average, people who dieted without exercising for 15 weeks lost 23 pounds; the exercisers lost only six over about 21 weeks.

But those genetic disorders are rare. It is more likely that people inherit a collection of genes, each of which predispose them to a small weight gain in the right environment, said Ruth Loos, director of the genetics of obesity and related metabolic traits program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Scientists have found more than 300 such altered genes — each may contribute just a few pounds but the effects add up in those who inherit a collection of them, Dr. Loos said. [6] (emphasis added)

So while it may well be the Oreos, it’s not just the Oreos. Genes, meet mom jeans.

But there are a few basic nuggets of knowledge that help us know where to start. Listen, most of us know this: if you eat whole, healthy, portion-controlled meals and get lots of daily exercise, you’ll lose weight.

From Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, nutritional biochemist and former director of the University of Utah Nutrition Clinic, in an interview for The Huffington Post online news site:

As a rule of thumb, weight loss is generally 75 percent diet and 25 percent exercise. An analysis of more than 700 weight loss studies found that people see the biggest short-term results when they eat smart. On average, people who dieted without exercising for 15 weeks lost 23 pounds; the exercisers lost only six over about 21 weeks. It’s much easier to cut calories than to burn them off. For example, if you eat a fast-food steak quesadilla, which can pack 500-plus calories, you need to run more than four miles to “undo” it! [7]

So what should we eat? That’s one good question that trustworthy diet reviews—especially ones like mine, where I have either tried the diet or have researched it thoroughly—try to answer in earnest.

What to Look Out for in a Diet Review

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has, among its jobs, a mandate to protect consumers from outrageously false advertising, and you won’t be surprised to learn that the weight loss market is chock-full of outrageous and often fraudulent claims: “Lose 20 pounds in 20 days!” (which is entirely too fast for healthy, sustainable weight loss, by the way) You might be surprised what the FTC has learned, and warned, about weight loss scams. There are eleven separate articles under “Scam Tag: Weight Loss” on the FTC site. Not individual scams—articles or blog posts about scams. [8]

Knowing up front whether a product is likely a scam is one thing. But often websites and spokespeople look and sound genuine, sincere, and even authoritative, so reading a good review all the way through may help you sort the fake from the first-rate.

What Makes for Well-written Diet Review?

A diet review worth your time should be readable and relatable, written in a straightforward way, not packed with superfluous and unneeded filler, but also not unnecessarily dumbed down to the point of patronization (remember the movie Philadelphia where Denzel Washington says “explain to me like I’m a 6-year-old”? Yeah, we can do better than that.) And the review should be easy to read, follow and learn from: a little order is in order.

  • What is it?
  • What does it claim?
  • How does it work?
  • How much does it cost?
  • What’s in it?
  • Is there proof? (independent scientific backing, if not of the product itself then of the ingredients and possible results of combination)
  • What do other dieters think about it?
  • And finally, what does the reviewer suggest?
  • Is the review is credible, well-researched, sourced and cited?

Weight loss pills, supplements, programs, or gadgets will make lots of claims, and the review should share those claims, but ultimately, it’s down to data. Solid science and facts—either drawn from thorough independent research or direct experience—must be present and cited. If it’s not, don’t keep reading.

For example, If you’re reading a review of the Nutrisystem diet—a reliably popular commercial diet—and it doesn’t state that some studies Nutrisystem cites as supportive of its claims are actually Nutrisystem’s own research, you’re missing out on key information. That’s not to say Nutrisystem doesn’t work, but it’s helpful to know what’s what.

A good review tells you what you’re getting into. Authoritative sourcing from medical journals, agencies, and societies that study nutritional science and obesity are good signs, like:

  • The Obesity Society [9]
  • The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) [10]
  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH) [11]
  • The Mayo Clinic [12]
  • com [13],
  • Harvard Medical School’s Health Publishing [14]
  • Johns Hopkins University Research Studies [15]
  • gov [16]
  • The Cleveland Clinic Research Department [17]
  • The US National Library of Medicine Clinical Trials [18] (here you can usually see who funded the study, and if there’s any indication there might have been pressure to bias the results)

I’ve named just a few, but you get the picture. If sources like these are not cited or quoted, the review is likely not very reliable and not worth your time. That’s not my opinion; it’s fact.

And don’t be fooled by sites that sound authoritative—especially ones that tout a blogger with Dr. in front of their name (I bet you can name two or three off the top of your head). Despite whatever medical background they may have—and there’s no guarantee it’s got anything to do with diet and nutrition—the biggest names are primarily motivated by one thing: money. They are usually paid to promote specific plans and products by the makers of those plans and products. One even got hauled up before Congress and admitted as much under oath. Check and double-check credentials before you take their word as gospel.

No program or pill is a miracle elixir. Not one. Without a real, good faith, go-for-it approach from you, the chances of failure are probably pretty high.

A review worth your time will share an informed opinion. That’s what a review is, after all—from diet to theatre reviewers, it’s one person’s opinion. There’s no denying that people prejudge; we are wired that way. We make assumptions. A reviewer (like me) may come in with some preconceived notions based on experience; but a worth-your-time informed review has to come from scratch, with a fresh take after we toss our assumptions. Good reviewers read authoritative health and medical research, examine clinical studies, and explore the scientific research when and if it exists (and often it doesn’t). Then, after a complete—or as complete as possible based on available information—a good reviewer will analyze, summarize and then offer an informed opinion or recommendation.

So, for example, we look at the ingredients in a supplement, check their authenticity, search for any study available on efficacy and safety, and do a thorough check on the company behind the supplement: is there a track record of successes or of scams? [19]

Another example: in a review of the Plexus Slim diet, if you don’t learn that Plexus Worldwide is allegedly a very shady multi-level marketing (MLM) company, the reviewer has done you a disservice. Because in the end it won’t matter if the product necessarily works; the company itself is not one to do business with, and if you don’t know that up front you may find yourself as the victim of a scam.

To follow the example through in the interest of informed decisions: according to a 2016 TruthInAdvertsing.org investigation, Plexus Worldwide has been warned numerous times by federal regulators about false health claims. The American Cancer Society forced the company to remove bogus claims about breast cancer treatments. Plexus Worldwide is being sued or has been successfully sued multiple times for nefarious conduct, from unfair compensation practices (that’s based on the pyramid-style business model) to not labeling products that contain lead. And Plexus is the subject of some eight hundred consumer complaints, mostly having to do with product quality and for being charged for stuff they did not want. [20]

Beyond the Review, It’s On You

What we know is that whatever the pill or supplement, meal replacement or vitamin, drink or packaged meal is going to work—regardless of what it may promise in terms of results—unless you are committed from the start to eating right and moving your body more than one floor of steps or a short walk to the kid’s bus stop. No program or pill is a miracle elixir. Not one. Without a real, good faith, go-for-it approach from you, the chances of failure are probably pretty high.

Some scenarios: Let’s say you decide on a supplement that helps curb appetite most of the day. Yes, you may not be as hungry throughout the day and later, when you’re hungry and need to eat, what is it you’re eating? Your appetite has been crushed for most of the day but then, come evening, you’re famished and decided that since you’ve been good all day and haven’t eaten, that McDonald’s is looking good. You do some math and rationalize a Big Mac meal (burger, large fries and soda) comes in at a little less than 1500 calories. [21]

A weight loss pill alone is almost never going to get you to your goals, so it’s up to you to take the steps toward a healthier life; it’s in your hands as much as any diet or supplement or gadget you might try.

You haven’t eaten anything and 1500 calories in a day may mean 1 pound of weight loss in a week for many of us, says the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) [22]. So you’re all set, as long as you only eat that meal. Right?

But wait. That $8 meal was packed with few nutrients, lots of saturated fats, lots of sugar and some no-good-very-bad white flour and starchy carbs. Garbage. So your appetite suppressant really hasn’t done much in the way of helping you eat healthy.

Or, let’s say it’s a diet with lots of prepackaged, processed foods—there’s no shortage of these diets on the market. But did you know that most of the low-fat ‘meals’ are chock full of sugars, the low-carb ones are heavy on fats, and too many of both contain preservatives, artificial ingredients, modified, refined or overly processed foods where the natural goodness and beauty of the original whole food is stripped? Where are the nutrients? Having been stripped, they have to be added back in as synthetics.

You’d be better off eating good food, food you love and enjoy eating, but just control the portions! I recently read that French and Italian women are just not as overweight as American women. Huh? French food is loaded with cream-based sauces, and buttery and sweet pastries and lots of baguettes for goodness’ sake. And Italian cooking features lots of pasta (carbs). So how do these women not blow up? Portion control. No supersizing. I know, this is not rocket science here, but the truth sometimes is just that simple.

A 1999 study by scientists at the University of Chicago found that building up a sleep debt over a matter of days can impair metabolism and disrupt hormone levels.

Another simple truth: if you’re still unsure of how best to lose weight, talk to your doctor about pursuing healthy lifestyle choices and habits. And keep in mind, there’s a lot more going on here than just what you are eating —although the old saying “we are what we eat” is like gospel for me and I believe it to be true. That said, losing weight is so much more than what you are eating—or rather, what you are not eating.

I recently spoke to my daughter about her first-year struggles at college, which included being overwhelmed and just not being able to get motivated and focused. She asked if maybe she needed some medication. I nixed that right off the bat and told her what she needed—but did not want—to hear. If we naturally increase the dopamine in our bodies, we will be happier, more focused, more motivated, less stressed and generally just healthier. That she’s living on ramen noodles isn’t helping, but that’s another story.

Very quickly, dopamine is a chemical released by our brains that sends the motivation-equals-reward feeling. When you have a task you don’t want to do, but then you get it done and feel good about yourself? Thank you, dopamine. Also, you should know that when dopamine is increased it can help you to lose weight—or at least get you on the weight-loss track. So how do you increase dopamine?

Let’s start with sleep. How do you sleep? Fitfully? Restfully? Do you get enough sleep? We need an absolute minimum of six—but preferably seven or eight (and for some maybe nine)—hours a night. Are you able to fall asleep, or do you find your head swimming with worry or concerns or plans or just plain old too much thinking, just when you need to relax, sleep, and let your body rejuvenate? If your sleep patterns and sleep rhythms are off, it’s not good for your health and can lead to obesity. It’s true. If you don’t get enough sleep, enough rest, you certainly won’t have the energy during the day to exercise. And if you’re eating (or likely overeating) without burning it off…well, you get the picture. [23]

Taking care of your mental and emotional health is as important. Yoga is an absolutely perfect way to combine exercise and meditation by its very nature; it’s calming, soothing, and can take you away while you’re stretching muscles you forgot you had. Plus, bonus: yoga and meditation reduce stress while boosting dopamine.

But it’s even worse than that. Because if you are already overweight or obese, problems sleeping are more common. Researchers say that millions of Americans have sleep apnea, something often associated with overweight and obese people—especially people who carry their weight in the upper body—which can compromise breathing and respiratory function.

“If a person is overweight and suffering from sleep-disordered breathing, he/she may not be as motivated to exercise or to diet. When apnea leads to daytime sleepiness, it may be that much harder to begin or sustain an exercise program, which has been shown to help people begin or maintain weight loss.” Not only does obesity contribute to sleep problems such as sleep apnea, but sleep problems can also contribute to obesity. A 1999 study by scientists at the University of Chicago found that building up a sleep debt over a matter of days can impair metabolism and disrupt hormone levels. After restricting 11 healthy young adults to four hours’ sleep for six nights, researchers found their ability to process glucose (sugar) in the blood had declined—in some cases to the level of diabetics.[23] [24]

Geez. Another reason we must lose weight!

Which is also a good segue for talking about the role of exercise. And I’m not talking about a Crossfit workout, I’m talking about a good stretch of the legs every day. A 30-minute walk daily, regularly climbing the stairs instead of taking an escalator or elevator when possible, playing outside with your kids, parking far from the entrance to the mall, (and speaking of the mall, taking a few extra laps around), stretching while cleaning the house—you get the idea. Move it and you’ll be more likely to lose it—the fat, I mean.

And finally, taking care of your mental and emotional health is as important. Yoga is an absolutely perfect way to combine exercise and meditation by its very nature; it’s calming, soothing, and can take you away while you’re stretching muscles you forgot you had. Plus, bonus: yoga and meditation reduce stress while boosting dopamine.

Are Diet Reviews Magic? No, Just Good Advice

A weight loss pill alone is almost never going to get you to your goals, so it’s up to you to take the steps toward a healthier life; it’s in your hands as much as any diet or supplement or gadget you might try. Limit or avoid altogether overly processed foods, sugars, and carbs; eat lean proteins, healthy fats, whole grain carbs, and lots of veggies; watch those portions; and make sure to exercise daily. Plus, there are some easy-to-incorporate tricks or hacks: use smaller plates for your meals; drink a full glass (or two) of water about a half hour before any meal.

This is all great information, but sometimes we need help and there are commercial diet products on the market that may help or harm. So read a good review or two before you give up your credit card number.

WebMD—my personal go-to arbiter and whiz when it comes to weight loss—says there are five types of weight loss scams to be on the lookout for:

  • claims that specific herbal ingredients will boost metabolism
  • carb-blocking pills
  • teas and teatoxing
  • diet subdermal patches and wraps, belts, and even bangles

I have written about all of these and, save maybe the tea (I don’t object in the least to green tea), I have found companies that deal in these weight loss devices and written about a number that are the kinds of products you want to steer clear of.

For example, let’s look at Isagenix Cleanse results. Isagenix is a multi-level marketing (MLM) business. Sellers—distributors—are your co-workers, acquaintances, neighbors, friends (or friends of friends a la Facebook) and perhaps even family. Their job is to recruit, push, and sell…recruit, push, and sell…lather, rinse, repeat. When I reviewed Isagenix I found no shortage of complaints about the hard sell. And in a couple of cases people saying distributors secretly admitted products weren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Knowing in a review that a meal replacement shake or supplement is part of a MLM may make you rethink buying in. Or maybe not. But you need the facts to make an informed decision. Look for a good review that’s based on research and not hyperbole.

Lastly, many diet pills and supplements rely on herbal blends as the main ingredients. Smart and savvy—in marketing terms, at least.

Do your own research, and never start any diet without speaking with your doctor, who will likely give you the best advice.

Why? Simple: the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate supplements, because they’re considered neither drugs nor foods. And as a result, dietary supplements like vitamins and diet pills cannot claim to treat, cure, prevent or diagnose any kind of illness or condition. That’s the standard disclaimer supplement and diet pill manufacturers and marketers must say on their package labels, and that they’re supposed to say in their marketing (though often it’s in teeny tiny print): their products are “not intended to treat, diagnose, prevent, or cure diseases.”

It follows, then, that they cannot make a claim otherwise, and the FDA “can take action to remove products from the market, but the agency must first establish” the product is adulterated, unsafe, misbranded, false, or misleading. [25]

Because remember, it’s not a drug and it’s not a food, so the FDA cannot approve dietary supplements. And it needs to establish that a diet pill—packed with herbs gathered from the tropics, for example—is pure and does what it says it’s going to do. But who really knows? Sometimes, people have to get very ill—or worse, die—from dangerous diet aids before there’s action taken. [26]

So watch what you put in your body, and take the time to read some good, solid, well-researched reviews before trying it. Do your own research, and never start any diet without speaking with your doctor, who will likely give you the best advice.

Review Sources

Daisy Mulcahey is a fiery redhead, skin browned from the sun and heritage, pulling and pushing a plow in a field somewhere in a tucked-in red plaid shirt, a worn gathered-at-the-waist black velvet skirt, and muddy work boots, cursing like a sailor. She works hard, loves hard, and does not play—meaning she is no fool. She’s a little fragile and often sweet, but has no problem kicking ass.


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