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Why you can’t believe weight loss testimonials

I wrote yonks ago about why you can’t always beleve the hype about fitness fads, and encouraging people to think critically before buying in to anything. At this time of year a lot of people are making themselves promises about the way they look, so when I stumbled across a short blog post this evening, I thought it was worth sharing.

The post illustrates exactly how easy it is to fool the eye (and the wishfully-thinking brain) with just a little work on posture, flexing the right muscles, using good lighting and a touch of post-production work. Just take a look at the panel below – all of the images in it were taken within the space of an hour. With a few changes of outfit and a quick shave, the author was able to take a series of photos that any fitness “guru” would be proud to use as a before/during/after montage (click on the image to view a bigger version, click here to read the blog post in full).

So what’s my point? When it comes to fitness, don’t believe your eyes. Don’t part with your hard-earned cash on the basis of a flashy web page and a few beguiling words. The best way to assess these things is to find someone who knows what they’re talking about, and talk to them about it – social media is a great way to do this, as it gives you access to thousands of experts almost instantly. I’d be happy to help you start – just leave a comment or send me a tweet.

Should you believe the fitness hype?

I see this over and over again among otherwise very intelligent people; an odd belief that the latest “big” thing in exercise or weight loss will be a magic bullet that suddenly brings them the body they’ve always thought they should have. Zaggora hot pants (Burn more calories!), Skechers Shape Ups (reduce cellulite!), green coffee extract (100% natural!) – the list is basically endless. Leaving aside the notion that this will somehow make them happy (for I haven’t the knowledge or skills to even begin to tackle that), why do these bright people fall for it?  I can’t answer that either. It’s potentially very harmful though – this tweet from @nchawkes says it rather well:

People end up spending frightening amounts of time, money and energy on these promises, and even when there’s temporary success (often due to diving into a new regime with a positive opinion, in my totally-un-evidence-based opinion) ultimately there’s stagnation at best, failure or regression at worst. These things are hugely destructive to body image and overall self-image.

So if I can’t explain the fascination with these things, the least I can do is provide a small extra weapon in the battle against profiteering and misinformation in the fitness world.  (Aside: it’s worth noting that much of the misinformation is spread amongst well-meaning friends, just trying to help one another; this type is just as difficult to address as any other dearly-held belief).

My first pearl of wisdom is hardly novel: anything that seems too good to be true, is. The cold hard truth is that you can’t permanently change your body without permanently changing your diet and lifestyle; they needn’t be massive, life-altering changes, but they must happen. You also can’t permanently change your body by throwing money at it instead of good quality food and exercise (unless we’re talking surgery; that’s pretty permanent).

My second piece of advice is: apply critical thinking. Is there something you’re naturally skeptical about, or distrustful of? Apply that same level of suspicion to diet and lifestyle advice. New device guarantees weight loss in one workout? Great. What’s the mechanism? Does it seem plausible? Is it more likely that it’s just helping dehydrate slightly, thereby losing water via sweat? Never ever forget that water’s heavy; 1kg (2.2lb) per litre to be precise. Doubt everything. 

Thirdly, and maybe most importantly (and predictably), demand evidence. Good quality evidence at that. Be ruthless. Be picky. Crucially, don’t accept anecdotes. These are everywhere in weight loss fads, to the point that I feel they’re worthy of a specially-adapted version of the anecdote rules:

  • Did the person gain the advertised benefit, and maintain it?
  • Was the advocated treatment the only one used?
  • If it’s really so good, why aren’t doctors and fitness professionals everywhere advocating it?

I’m hoping to look at some individual claims in more detail, but hopefully this post will at least serve as a cue to get you thinking about the way you look at claims in the weight-loss industry.