NBC’s Biggest Loser, which has helped 14 seasons of contestants lose enormous amounts of weight through intensive diet and exercise, will crown this season’s winner on Monday. But though the show itself advocates substance-free weight loss, its most prominent trainers are endorsing unproven — and potentially dangerous — weight-loss supplements.
Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels, two of the three trainers on the show, each have their own line of diet pills, despite their firm public commitment to losing weight through diet and exercise alone. They promote and sell their supplements independently — they aren’t mentioned on NBC.com or sold in the Biggest Loser store or their own personal websites. Both trainers have created standalone sites — jillianweightloss.com and bobharpersupplements.com — to sell their supplements. By taking this under-the-radar path with their diet pills, the trainers are using the fame and trust they’ve gained from their time on the Biggest Loser to market weight loss supplements to a consumer base eager for a quick fix that “really works.”
There is little proof that either pill “really works” at all. Michaels has faced four different lawsuits from consumers claiming her supplements either didn’t work or were dangerous. All four suits were dismissed, and it wasn’t clear whether the ingredients singled out in one lawsuit — Chinese rhubarb, Irish moss powder and uva-ursi — posed a major risk to consumers. But Lynn Willis, professor emeritus of pharmacology at Indiana University, says that Michaels’ Total Body Detox and Cleanse supplement is ineffective:
“This product is an absurdity,” says Willis. “It’s completely bogus that this would detoxify the gut. Someone takes a laxative and they lose two pounds of water weight, but it will come right back.”
Adriane Fugh-Berman, associate professor at Georgetown University, agrees:
“Supplements like this are laxatives and diuretics, and they don’t have any place in a rational weight loss regimen because they can dehydrate people and leave them short of electrolytes,” [she] says. “And supplements have side effects.”
That doesn’t stop Michaels and Harper from continuing to claim their supplements are different from all the rest. Harper’s site boasts claims of two double-blind, placebo-controlled studies that confirm the effectiveness of his active ingredients, but one of the studies was funded by the makers of Harper’s pill, neither is named or linked to, and only one can be found online. According to an indepedent supplement review website there are several flaws in the study: the caloric intake of the participants was not monitored or restricted, which means there is no way to tell how many calories each participant in the study consumed on a daily basis; the study wasn’t performed on Bob Harper’s supplement, but on a different product; and four out of the five co-authors have ties to the company that makes the diet pill. Despite this, Harper claims on his page that he’s “tired of good people like you getting ripped off by scam diet programs and products that just don’t work,” and that his really does.
Michaels’ marketing strategy is the similar: she claims that there are a lot of “fly by night” diet pills out there, but she wouldn’t put her name on a product “unless I truly believed in it and in its quality.” Michaels has said before that she’s “not a fan” of pharmaceutical weight-loss drugs, yet she’ll promote a product that isn’t FDA-approved and has only her word and vague claims of published studies on active ingredients (though neither the studies, publication nor the ingredients tested are named).
NBC told ThinkProgress they would not comment about the weight loss supplements endorsed by Biggest Loser trainers.
There is little evidence that over-the-counter diet supplements like the ones marketed by Harper and Michaels help people lose weight. They aren’t subject to FDA approval — Alli is the only FDA-approved over-the-counter weight loss pill — and therefore companies don’t have to prove their supplements are effective or safe before they begin selling them, which leads to the inclusion of ingredients that are useless for weight loss and could be unsafe.
On Monday, in front of a live TV audience, Harper and Michaels will tout the results Biggest Loser contestants achieve through restrictive diets and extremely intense exercise — a formula that has itself drawn criticism. But the next time viewers see them, it might be on the bottle of a unproven, unregulated — and potentially unsafe — weight-loss pill. How long will they be able to have it both ways?