Facebook users recruit friends for diet, supplement programs — but is it legit?

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Last winter, Natalie Vargas was nearing her mid-30s, eating fast food for lunch, drinking about nine cups of coffee a day, and feeling exhausted and sick to her stomach. But all of that changed in April 2015, when she began following a program she heard about on Facebook from a friend who had been struggling with similar issues.

Vargas, 34, credits the transformation to a $125/month weight loss and cleanse program she purchased through Plexus. The company is one of countless that uses multi-level marketing (MLM)— a trend that experts say has helped fuel the U.S. dieting industry’s growth to an estimated $64 billion value, the latest data available from research firm Marketdata Enterprises.

As New Year’s resolutions to hit the gym and eat healthy begin to wane, droves of Americans like Vargas will turn to similar programs that suggest their brand-specific supplements can help kick-start users’ metabolism, detoxify their systems and boost their energy.

Many people will learn about these programs through friends on social media who are then compensated by the company whose products they’re promoting— the basis of MLM, or network marketing.

But due to flexible federal regulation of weight loss products and their often obscure ingredients, many registered dietitians question whether these programs offer more than what can be attained through a traditional healthy lifestyle. Others worry some may be Ponzi schemes that could leave participants not only sicker— but also broker— than when they started.

Can you really “detox” the body?

On Amazon, nearly 3,000 products are listed under the subcategory “Detox & Cleanse.” “The terms ‘detox’ and ‘cleanse’ have become so mainstream in the dieting world that those terms don’t mean too much anymore,” Heather Mangieri, spokeswoman for American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN).

But if you talk to anyone with a degree in dietetics from an accredited university— like Mangieri, who received her master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh— or any biologist with similar credentials, they’ll tell you the same thing: The body already cleanses itself. That’s what the liver, kidneys and colon do naturally.

Gershon, who studies the bowel’s relationship with the nervous system, said the bacterium in the body’s colon lining plays a fundamental role in digestion and nourishment. For example, cellulose, a component of fiber found in leafy greens like lettuce and spinach, can’t be digested by the body without the delicate balance of bacterium that self-regulates in the colon.

When the colon absorbs toxins— by way of exposure to a foodborne illness like salmonella or cholera, for instance— the body becomes nauseated and vomits to try to rid itself of that toxin. In foods that are safe to eat, toxins aren’t absorbed. The body flushes them naturally.

“One way to avoid a toxin is don’t eat it,” Gershon said. Taking any supplement in excess has the potential to have the opposite of its desired effect— that is, overloading on supplements may intoxicate the body, said Samantha Heller, a senior clinical nutritionist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.

Heller, a registered dietitian for nearly two decades, referred to Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling’s 1969 theory that vitamin C was a “miracle” supplement that could cure the common cold and extend people’s life spans. Following that belief, which has been debunked multiple times but is still popularly held today, people began taking too much vitamin C, causing the vitamin to transform from a disease-fighting antioxidant to a pro-oxidant, Heller said.

Can supplements help you lose weight?

Popular programs like Plexus, as well as Isagenix, AdvoCare and Arbonne, call for taking supplements, either in pill or powder form, and some version of fasting from whole foods.

Heller hasn’t extensively studied the ingredients of products in those plans, but she said a quick review suggests many contain Stevia, a non-nutritive sweetener that research suggests may “interfere with the gut-brain axis, increase sweet cravings and appetite, and shift the gut microbiome in an unfavorable direction.” The microbiome refers to that crucial population of bacterium that Gershon described.

Heller said some of the products for these programs also contain laxatives. “Looking at the long lists of ingredients in these products, one wonders, ‘Why not just eat real food, where Mother Nature has created the perfect balance of nutrients for the body?’” Heller said. “These kinds of programs are a waste of time and money.”

Isagenix, a company that has about 230,000 likes on Facebook, has a whole catalog of packages not only for weight loss, but for performance enhancement and energy, among other solutions. Its 30-Day Cleansing and Fat Burning System calls for, during two different periods throughout the cleanse, an elimination of full meals and taking a mix of shakes and supplements the company says may “accelerate” weight loss, as well as “cleanse” and “flush” the body.

AdvoCare, which has about 374,000 likes on Facebook, has a 24-Day Challenge that features a bundle of supplements to be taken during a 10-day cleanse phase to “rid your body of waste,” among other effects, and then offer “appetite control and overall wellness” during the following 14-day phase.

Whether it’s helpful at all to supplement a healthy, balanced diet with any vitamins and minerals in the first place is unclear, registered dietitians say. Although sales of supplements have led to the growth of a multibillion dollar industry, the science behind whether they’re helpful or harmful— or do nothing at all— is fuzzy.

Studies on multivitamins, for example, have produced mixed results, with some research suggesting people who take them may be less inclined to follow a healthy diet— thus increasing their risk of early death— and other studies suggesting they may extend an individual’s life span.

Some experts say individuals could benefit from taking a vitamin D supplement, Heller noted, but the popular belief that vitamin B12 can offer an energy boost is a myth because the body excretes the vitamin before fully absorbing it.

A big reason why companies can say their products may have certain benefits lies in terms laid out by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Those rules outline what dietary supplement companies and their ambassadors may imply during marketing, but they allow companies to clarify claims with asterisks that indicate their products may not work for everyone and that they are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Since 1994, when Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, supplements— whether sold individually or bundled in weight loss packages— have been freed of regulation from the FDA.

“The FDA has received numerous reports of harm associated with the use of weight loss products, including increased blood pressure, heart palpitations (a pounding or racing heart), stroke, seizure and death,” Meyer said. “When safety issues are suspected, FDA must investigate and, when warranted, take steps to have these products removed from the market.”

Is your diet worth the price?

In programs that operate under MLM marketing, participants hear about the product at hand through an ambassador or distributor who sells them the product then acts as their adviser throughout the program, like the relationship between Vargas and her coach.

While legal MLM companies can resemble fraudulent pyramid, or Ponzi, schemes, it is likely legal if it meets certain criterion outlined by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). According to the SEC, pyramid schemes and legal MLM companies both suggest participants can profit when they recruit new followers and often require a “buy-in” or fee of some amount to become a seller. Kaitlyn Iannuzzi, Vargas’ coach, said the sign-up cost to become a Plexus ambassador is $150, which includes the ambassador’s first month of products.

Some of the key characteristics of pyramid schemes are that they don’t offer a real product, promise a “get rich quick” model with little to no work required, and have a complex commission structure, according to the SEC. While some of the commission structures of popular cleanse programs could be considered complicated, companies like Plexus, Isagenix and AdvoCare do offer products and require their ambassadors to actively recruit new members to earn money. The SEC monitors those companies that are publicly traded, while those that are privately owned may list their financials online.

Depending on his or her level and the program at hand, an ambassador for a popular cleanse program can earn between about $700 to over $1 million per year. The aim is that the more they sell, and the more people they recruit, the greater their earnings.

Laura DeAngelis, a 41-year-old personal trainer based in New York City, bought a supply of Isagenix’s 30-Day Challenge products last February and talks openly about her experience, but she isn’t an official, paid ambassador for the company.

Article Source: foxnews.com

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