Updated 20 September 2013

Spot a crash diet ad

The promises that are made by producers of slimming aids seem too good to be true and it is really tempting to believe them when you're feeling desperate.

Being thin has become an obsession for many people in the last couple of decades. Not being able to get into your new jeans is seen as a catastrophe on a far greater scale than deadly virus stalking the world. Right, so how can I fix this, quickly?

It is exactly this attitude on which many of the producers of diet pills, diet shakes, patches, electric pads, injections and diet books capitalise. The promises that are made seem too good to be true and it is really tempting to believe them when you're feeling desperate.

So how does one recognise advertisements for crash diets?

All this and heaven, too. The promises made in these advertisements do sound too good to be true, because they are. No one can realistically lose more than 1.5kg per week and keep it off. Any weight-loss programme or pill that promises that you can go from blimp to stick insect in a few weeks is trying to make money out of your desire to be thin and lose weight quickly. Lose 19kg in 3 weeks? Not possible.

Uncontactable references. Sarie from Bellville may claim to have lost 40kg in three months, but she quite possibly doesn't exist. It's very easy to pick a photograph off the internet and attribute the weight loss to this fictitious person. And there are hundreds of Saries in Bellville – you'll not be able to find her.

Before and after – the same person? Check closely whether the before and after pictures are indeed of the same person. A slimming product will not turn a matronly housewife of 42 into a bikini babe with flowing blonde hair. Before photographs are often also blurred, in black and white and the person in them dressed in the worst possible outfit for their figure – such as a stretchy jersey in black and white horizontal stripes, or a dress in which you could slipcover the Western Cape. Also, they're never smiling. The after picture, however, looks like professional makeup artists and fashion consultants have been at work.

Invisible business. Dodgy businesses are often incontactable in that they have no physical addresses or direct telephone numbers. If you wanted to go to the offices, it would be impossible. Watch out for the products sold by businesses that don't give street addresses or direct telephone numbers – there are reasons why they don't want you to find them. A favourite trick is to just have a vague P.O. Box address – P.O. Box 12345, Klerksdorp, could belong to anyone.

Medical 'tests' and testimonies. Be very careful of medical endorsements of any product. 'Doctor Flanagan of Buenos Aires' possibly also doesn't exist and if he did, his endorsement of this product may not have been his wisest move. Universities, medical councils and large pharmaceutical companies test products and can usually be trusted. A single doctor who swears by the product cannot.

Sweeping statements. Slimming ads love making sweeping statements that have little basis in truth. "Eat what you like and still become thin", "Cut out all carbohydrates" or "Eat no fat at all", are not sound medical directives. If you did any of these for a few weeks, you'll probably become ill. Fact is, your body needs food from all the food groups. The only thing you can cut out completely without any ill effects is sugar, because your body produces its own glucose from carbohydrates.

Money-back guarantee. Although not always the case, money-back guarantees usually signal two things – the producers/advertisers know that their story sounds implausible and think that if they give a money-back guarantee, more people will be prepared to take the chance. Only thing is when you try and claim your money back, there's usually a snag of some sort in the fine print. Very few people get their cash back when they don't lose 10kg in two weeks.

Revolutionary pill/powder/patch. If this really worked, it wouldn't be selling at R119.99 for a month's supply – try ten or twenty times the amount. Fact is, the only way to lose weight and keep it off, is to eat healthy foods, in moderate quantities, and to get a lot of exercise. You need to use more kilojoules than you consume. And that's the truth and there's no getting around it. Switch to a healthy eating pattern – crash diets only mess up your metabolism, and once you're on the starve/binge-eating pattern, they could make you gain more weight than you've lost.

– (Susan Erasmus, updated September 2011)

Read more about healthy weight loss in our Diet & Food section

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