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Elizabeth Cohen: Misconceptions about weight problems


Although makers of over-the-counter weight-loss products promise amazing results, medical experts say there is no pill, drink or food that will take weight off on its own. CNN Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen looks at how people approach weight loss and the appeal of over-the-counter products.

Q. Isn't it common sense for people with weight problems to consult their physicians? How come so many don't do it?

A. Doctors' offices seem to be the last place people turn for weight advice. Part of the problem is that doctors don't receive much training in weight loss, even though obesity is a huge public health issue in this country. Perhaps another reason people often don't ask their doctors is that there's so much advice out there already: on TV, on the Internet, and in stores of all kinds, people and product labels claim to have the trick to quick weight loss.

Another reason might be is that there's still a stigma about being overweight, and perhaps patients would rather handle the problem on their own rather than face a possibly judgmental physician.

Q. What are common misconceptions people have about losing weight?

A. I'd say the biggest misconception people have is that once they lose weight then they're home free -- they don't think about what they'll do afterwards. Expert after expert will tell you that anyone can lose weight but few can keep it off. In fact, a USDA study found that pretty much any fad diet will help you take off the pounds, but there's not much evidence that they'll help you keep the weight off.

Another problem people have is they try to lose weight too quickly. They often forget that slow and steady wins the race. If you tried to sell a diet that helped people lose one pound a week, you'd probably have few takers. But weighing 52 pounds less a year from now -- and keeping it off -- would be a successful diet.

Q. Exactly how effective are over-the-counter weight-loss drugs and why do so many people rely on them?

A. It's impossible to say exactly how effective these over-the-counter weight loss supplements are because the FDA doesn't regulate them, and hence doesn't require clinical trials as they do for prescription drugs. So one would have only the manufacturer's word to go on -- and they say the products work beautifully.

I'm not sure people rely on them per se -- they may try them for a while, lose weight, gain it back, and then move on to another product. People try these products because losing weight can be a very frustrating experience. Many people find it difficult to make permanent changes in their diet and exercise habits, and doctors and patients have told us that prescription diet pills have had somewhat disappointing results.

People often point to the diet drug fen-phen as the ultimate magic bullet -- it really did help people take off significant amounts of weight, but they gained it right back again after going off the drugs. Then the FDA took the combination off the market because it appeared to cause heart problems, especially when taken for a long time.

So the bottom line is there is no magic bullet and so many people will try pretty much anything that claims to work.

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