July 18, 2024

Don’t Get Duped by Health Fraud! Avoid These Red Flags

Author: Kate Findley
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By Roberta H. Anding, M.S., Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital
Edited by Kate Findley, The Great Courses Daily

When it comes to evaluating health information, even the most sophisticated readers can still be thrown off by phrases like “all natural” or “expert” testimonials. Professor Roberta Anding shows us how to stop falling for these sneaky tricks used by advertisers in the health and weight loss industries.

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Health Fraud and Weight Loss

The sources that we use to educate ourselves on nutrition are rife with misinformation, especially on the internet. By looking out for the red flags, though, you can avoid becoming a victim of health fraud. 

One area where misinformation is particularly prevalent is the weight loss industry. Even when a product or practice does lead to weight loss, you must ask yourself whether it’s sustainable and benefits your long-term health. 

“I’ve had patients coming in who want to cleanse their colon,” Professor Anding said. “Now, if you think about colon cleansing, you would think that makes sense. … But Mother Nature has done a wonderful job in terms of giving us a recipe for colon cleansing, and it’s called fiber.

“There is no 20 pounds of waste product that accumulates on the inside of your intestinal wall. There is no reason to purify and detoxify yourself. But literally, over and over again, I see people coming in with colon cleansing.” 

Most of these programs are forcing diarrhea as a way of helping people lose weight. If you have diarrhea, it’s mostly water weight. So the number on the scale may go down, but you’re not losing body fat.

All Natural Does Not Equal Safe

When it comes to evaluating nutrition information, how do you separate fact from fiction? One phrase to watch out for is “all natural.”

What’s our alternative? “All synthetic”? “All fake”? We don’t like those words, so “all natural” gives us this illusion of waving grains of wheat, and we translate that to safe. 

However, some things from nature aren’t safe at all, such as heroin, cocaine, and tobacco. Imagine if cigarette manufacturers put waving fields of tobacco on their product to try and sell this as an all-natural product. “All natural” is not synonymous with “safe.”

“I had a patient who came into my clinic, and she had been reading on the internet that prozac antidepressant medication has a black box warning, which suggests there’s some side effects associated with it, so she didn’t want to use that evil pharmaceutical,” Professor Anding said.

“What she wanted to use was a homeopathic version of an antidepressant. We … actually looked up the herb she was taking, and the herb contained strychnine. So she was, every single day, supplementing herself with a poison.”

Understandably, the woman was trying to protect her health, and she was concerned, as many people are, about the side effects of medications such as prozac.

“[For] individuals who are trying to find alternative information, as a registered dietician, I always look at that as a gift,” Professor Anding said. “Now I have people who are interested in making a change, but they need some guidance along that path to optimal wellness.”

By learning how to separate fact from fiction, you can avoid consumer health fraud.

How to Identify Health Fraud

Information from the Food and Drug Administration highlights the red flags of health fraud. When you hear any of these claims being made, you need to have your antenna up and say, “Is this helpful information or hype?”

1. Is it a quick and effective cure-all? For example, if an advertisement for a new health product states that you don’t have to diet or exercise, you can assume that it’s probably not reasonable.

2. Can it treat a serious or incurable disease? A product you can buy from a consumer magazine or the internet that claims to treat a major disease is separating you from treatment that may be lifesaving, or at least life-sustaining.

3. Is the ad claiming to have some miraculous breakthrough, secret formula, or the hidden ingredient that “your doctor doesn’t want you to know about?” Think about this one for a second. What they’re trying to do is separate you from reliable sources of information. 

4. Does the ad feature fancy-sounding medical terminology such as “thermogetic setpoint” or “lipoactive”? It all sounds impressive, but when you further research this medical terminology, it doesn’t exist—another red flag.

5. Beware of personal testimonies, even if they are from physicians claiming amazing results. The celebrities or experts promoting these products may not even take the products themselves; they are incentivized by generous endorsement deals. 

Certainly you’ve seen before-and-after pictures where someone will claim they got amazing results from a product. Well, we’re all smart enough to know that with Adobe® Photoshop® and other technologies that we can use to alter photos, just because we see it in print doesn’t necessarily mean it reflects reality.

6. Some companies use urgency: “Limited availability. Act now. These products are in short supply.” 

Track these commercials. If this “limited availability” ad comes back over and over again for the same product, obviously they must be making more products.

In short, addressing any major condition, whether it’s cancer, cardiovascular disease, or obesity, requires some effort. If you want to lose 100 pounds, you are going to be hungry, you must exercise, and you must make behavioral choices every single day. Exercise and diet actually work, so that’s why they don’t end up on this list of health fraud examples.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily.

Professor Roberta H. Anding is a registered dietitian and Director of Sports Nutrition and a clinical dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. She also teaches and lectures in the Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, Section of Adolescent Medicine and Sports Medicine, and in the Department of Kinesiology at Rice University. In addition, she is a registered dietitian with the American Dietetic Association and a dietitian for the Houston Texans NFL franchise. 

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