Spam. It’s the bane of anyone with an email address. We all loathe and despise it, but does anyone actually buy the often ridiculous and over-the-top products being shilled? It turns out that when it comes to weight loss spam, young adults who think they’re fat swallow it en masse.
Researchers Joshua Fogel of Brooklyn College and Sam Shlivko of New York Law School conducted a survey of 200 New York college students about their experiences with spam email for weight loss products (published here in the January edition of Southern Medical Journal). Participants were asked, “Do you believe that you have weight problems?” One-third answered that they did and responses were then compared along those lines. Keep in mind that the study only asked for a yes-or-no response as to whether someone believed they had a weight problem, meaning that this group could have realistically included both students who are certifiably fat or those who just think themselves the size of a landbarge. Of those students who reported to have weight problems:
- 85 percent said they had received weight loss spam over the past year, compared to 73 percent of those without weight problems
- 42 percent opened and read spam email advertising weight loss products versus just 18 percent of those without weight problems
- 19 percent said they had bought a weight loss product from spam — as did five percent (!) of those without weight problems.
Researchers also measured participants’ psychological stress according to the Perceived Stress Scale and the Rosenburg Self-Esteem Scale. Not surprisingly, students who reported weight problems had lower self-esteem and higher perceived stress, which, in part, influenced their proclivity to open, read and purchase weight loss spam. In all, after adjusting for other factors, students with reported weight problems were about three times more likely to receive and open weight loss spam and to buy the products pitched.
So, what’s the big deal, some might ask. We’re constantly bombarded with the mantra that “diets don’t work” and the only thing these students have to lose is their money, right? Wrong. As Fogel noted in his report, there is no quality control for products advertising in spam emails. The current law on dietary supplements gives the FDA jurisdiction only after the products go on the market. And instead of reviewing the supplements and approving them for sale, as the agency does with drugs, the FDA is limited to spot-checking manufacturers and distributors and testing products already on store shelves. In February, the agency issued warnings for 70 weight loss supplements found to contain unlisted and potentially dangerous ingredients — see the complete list here. And this list, most of which are imported from China, represents only a teensy tiny fraction of the dangerous and often ineffective diet pills available in what is a $1.7 billion dollar a year market. The FDA itself admits that it simply does not have the resources to identify what may be hundreds of other drug-contaminated weight-loss supplements for sale. Some spam emails even advertise and sell prescription medications without requiring proof of a valid prescription. And not addressed in the report is the more alarming consideration that responding to weight loss spam only reveals what may be a larger and more shadowy pattern of disordered eating and fad or yo-yo dieting, all of which take their toll on health and may even ironically lead to even greater weight gain.
Products purchased via weight loss spam can also take a blow to one’s pocketbook and even credit ratings. Since posting my expose on one acai berry diet scam more than a year ago, responses — 139 as of this posting — continue to trickle in from duped buyers who report being scammed charged hundreds of dollars in unauthorized expenses for “free” trial offers and when they call to cancel, either find that the customer service number has been disconnected or are put on hold for an ungodly amount of time by agents who often refuse to refund their money and sometimes even to cancel their orders altogether.
Researchers note that the findings indicate that young adults with weight problems are “apparently not seeking or not satisfied with evidence-based treatments available from physicians… or other health care providers.” And therein lies the problem, for as physicians, scientists, researchers and specialists admit, there is no proven way to make — and keep — fat people thin. The National Institutes of Health and other studies show that, on average, 95-98 percent of people who lose weight gain it back within five years. Only 2-5 percent of dieters succeed in keeping their weight off while 90 percent of those gain back more weight than they lost. Even those who undergo weight loss surgery mostly become less fat, with weight regain rates both high and common.
Trust me. If some virtuoso discovers that enchanted unicorn horn dust will magically whittle our waistlines, he/she would be hailed as a global fat-fighting hero, invited to the White House for a few cold ones (all lite, of course), awarded the Nobel Prize amidst international fanfare and be secretly masturbated to by MeMe Roth. Insurance companies everywhere would cover these miracle pills in full without reserve; they’d be added to the water supply with fluoride and the government would pass them out like candy. But as the old adage cautions us, if it’s too good to be true — and it’s peddled by spam-mongers — it probably is. My advice? Invest in a good spam filter and save yourself some time, money and sanity.