A survey conducted by the University of Connecticut’s Center for Survey Research and Analysis (CSRA) was presented at the Obesity Society’s annual meeting in Boston, MA. The survey’s purpose was to examine what the American population thinks about weight loss drugs and supplements and how they have attempted to lose weight. The survey was funded by GlaxoSmithKline, the drug company that manufactures the prescription weight loss drug orlistat, brand name Xenical. Interestingly, the data suggests that a majority of individuals have misconceptions about weight loss supplements and their efficacy. “FDA-approved drugs for weight loss have gone through years of testing with thousands of patients to prove that they are safe and effective. Supplements have not,” said Thomas Wadden, president of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity. Over 1,400 individuals were surveyed, all of whom had made a concerted effort to lose weight. Of those surveyed, 65% mistakenly said that weight loss supplements have been tested and proven to be safe, while 63% said those same supplements were tested and proven to be effective. Over half of all respondents (54%) incorrectly stated that weight loss supplements are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Currently, the FDA has not approved any weight loss drugs for sale over-the-counter.
The results of the survey demonstrate that overweight Americans want to lose weight and will try almost any method, even the utilization of untested products without a doctor’s prescription or recommendation. The survey revealed that 34% of Americans have used dietary supplements in an effort to lose weight, nearly double the number of Americans who have used FDA-approved prescription medication for the same reason. Demographically speaking, the prevalence of weight loss supplements is greater in African Americans (49%) and Hispanics (42%) than Caucasians (31%). Perhaps the most alarmingly statistic extracted from the data was the reluctance of individuals to speak with their physicians about weight loss. Although 87% of respondents have a primary-care physician, only 30% said they would speak to their doctor about losing weight. Saul Shiffman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh had the following to say about the survey: “The survey shows many Americans want to and will try to lose weight without a doctor’s help and without prescription medication. To maximize their success, overweight Americans need to be informed about products that have been proven effective, and to use effective products and methods, to increase the effectiveness of Americans’ dieting efforts, and improve their health and well-being.”
Coincidentally, at the same meeting, leaders in the field of obesity announced a White Paper call-to-action that will attack misleading advertising of weight loss diet supplements. “We choose to approach the obesity epidemic by first attacking something specific, the hype of weight-loss products that creates a climate of failure,” said MRC Greenwood, a professor of nutrition and internal medicine at the University of California at Davis. He went on to say that “we believe that by keeping the effort closely targeted and working closely with researchers, clinicians, and the media, we can produce concrete results and begin to save lives.” The initiative calls for an increased effort of physicians to teach patients about realistic weight loss goals and to discourage the use of untested and unproven diet products. In addition, the plan pushes for stricter enforcement by governmental regulators of existing laws and regulations pertaining to products that make unsubstantiated weight-loss claims. Finally, the initiative stresses communication by the media of potential consequences of use of unverified weight-loss products. An increase in consumer education is at the forefront of the White Paper call-to-action. One of the best ways to discourage the companies that manufacture weight-loss supplements from continuing to bombard the public with gimmick weight-loss remedies is to stop purchasing the products. As long as consumers seek a “quick-fix” to their problem, these companies that mislead the general public and prey on the uninformed consumer will continue to thrive.