Thursday, July 19, 2012

Miracle weight loss products

After reading an excellent post by Scott Gavura at Science-Based Medicine I posted a link to it on my Facebook wall, along with a fairly unequivocal statement regarding "miracle" solutions for weight loss.  It went something like this.

"Yet another useless "miracle" diet. There is no easy quick fix to losing and KEEPING OFF weight. None. Period. Anyone that tells you otherwise is either lying, delusional, or the CEO of a company that sells weight loss products."

After thinking about it for a bit, I felt it necessary to provide at least a bit of empirical support for my statement.  I can tell you from my experience that every single weight loss product sold where I work is not worth your time or money.  And I have yet to see a single evidence-based, realistic article in popular grocery store magazines regarding how to sustainably lose weight.  Of course, it wouldn't sell many magazines if you tossed on the headline "Lose 1-2 pounds per week by counting all the calories you eat, eating way less than you do right now and once you've lost the weight, working out an average of one hour a day."  If you can sell that, you should be in marketing.

But my experience is no indicator of truth.  So I decided to generate a research hypothesis.  It goes something like this.  If the massively popular sports nutrition and weight loss products and programs sold to millions of individuals struggling with weight every year are actually effective, we should see their use go in lockstep with rates of obesity.  But we all know that rates of obesity have been steadily climbing for the last 10 years.  And, of course, so have sales of sports nutrition and weight management products and services.  In fact, the similarity between the two growth curves is so similar, it is almost frightening.

Now it stands to reason 100% that this would be so.  As more and more people struggle with weight and seek solutions to their struggles, the market for these products grows.  As such, the marketing of them grows and, in turn, their sales.  It makes sense.  But if they were actually effective, it would be a self-limiting relationship as they would work themselves right out of a job.  But they're not effective.  They're useless and probably contribute at least partially to societal obesity itself.

The graph below is based on OECD obesity data for the US and market data for the sports nutrition and weight management industry.  Obviously, there are a million holes in this approach, but it is certainly a question worth pursuing in more scientific circles.  (In case you are a stats nerd like me, the correlation in the below graph is 0.99)