Diet programs, meal replacements condemned by Choice

Posted by James Ferre on 4th February 2009

An investigation by leading consumer group Choice has discovered that popular diet plans and products often fall short of what they promise.

A damning undercover survey of diet plans and products offered at pharmacies failed to recommend any of them, with problems including a lack of training, supervision and, in some cases, irresponsibility.

The report suggests that, while the pharmacy diet plans may assist in weight loss, most fail to deal effectively with the complex broader issues around obesity and overweight.

Choice sent three shadow shoppers to 21 pharmacies offering seven different diet programs and then commissioned an independent expert panel of dietitians and nutritionists assess the findings.

All but one of the plans uses meal replacement products, which typically cost upwards of $40 a week. There are joining fees of between $20-30. Consultants also ‘up sell’ additional supplements to meet vitamin, fibre and mineral needs.

But the survey established the majority of pharmacy consultants didn’t assess important factors such as family medical history, current exercise levels, usual diet and lifestyle, alcohol intake and previous weight loss methods.

“People who want to lose weight need to learn how to eat, think and exercise properly, while taking a long-term approach to their lifestyle,” according to Melbourne weight loss doctor, Dr Leon Massage, who has been advising overweight patients for more than 20 years at his Body Metabolism Institute and has seen first hand that ‘quick fix’ meal replacements ultimately fail.

Dr Leon Massage

Dr Leon Massage

“High quality meal replacement powders may assist in the short-term but rarely, if ever, succeed in the long-term,” he suggested.

For half the programs, the consultants only had between three to six hours’ basic training, which the Choice experts described as “grossly inadequate”, the remainder only had two days. They also slammed two programs as disgraceful and irresponsible for accepting some children into their plans.

“We place a great deal of trust in our local pharmacists and Choice is concerned that the advice and support consumers are receiving about quick-fix diet programs is manifestly inadequate,” Choice spokesman Christopher Zinn said.

Nutritionally, the experts said they had concerns about the kilojoule, carbohydrate and fibre levels of some programs.

Choice is now calling for a national accreditation system that includes minimum standards for training that covers all programs, consultants and leaders who counsel people on losing weight. It also highlights the need for greater public education to ensure consumer understanding of health and nutrition improves.

“A one-size-fits-all response is limited in its effectiveness as consumers need to learn to choose healthy, wholesome food and food that is best for their metabolic profile,” Dr Massage told Australian Food News. “It is essential for weight loss and medical histories to be considered because any weight loss program needs to be structured for the individual.”

Food manufacturers are beginning to understand the notion of different foods for different people, with Nestlé last year beginning research into creating scientifically based foods to assist consumer nutrition. They are attempting to establish a deeper appreciation of the connection between body composition, metabolic profile and health.