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Snake Oil

Snake Oil in the Fitness Industry

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We live in a world of instant gratification. We can rent and watch a movie without leaving our couch. Pizza delivered in less than 30 minutes. Have a conversation with someone across the country in the matter of a few clicks of a phone or laptop. We can have almost anything we want within minutes… almost anything. Somehow our society has been fooled into thinking that same convenience can be applied to our health. Commercials constantly filled with miracle creams that facilitate fat loss. Money hungry social media fitspos persuading well-meaning followers to drink detox and skinny teas with promises of dramatic fat loss.

The fitness industry is filled with nothing short of modern-day snake oil salesmen. The only difference is social media has replaced wagons and horses, and the snake oil is now bogus supplement claims. It’s time that we put our feet down and see these scams for what they really are, and begin helping others see why exactly these common fads are not only a waste of money, but potentially downright harmful. This article goes into detail why each of the most popular fitness fads are so bogus, and how the only weight you’ll lose and keep off is from a lighter wallet.


Waist Trainers

More like “waste” trainers, the idea that these modern day corsets have made a comeback in modern day society is truly saddening. Corsets, which is exactly what these “new” waist trainers are, originated sometime in the 1600s. To put that in perspective, these were popular during the same time frame in which the microscope had only just been invented, and egg yolks were thought to be a common ingredient in remedies used for healing wounds…

Original corsets were worn with the intention of improving the appearance of breasts (basically a push up bra), improve posture and slightly narrow the waist in order to help enhance femininity when out and about. They were worn so tightly, the popularity of “fainting couches” grew as women often, literally fainted when removing their corsets once arriving back home. These corsets were indented to essentially hide the fact that women weren’t nearly as shapely as they tried to appear.

Fast forward 400+ years, and slightly dressed up version of corsets are being sold by the hundreds with promises of fat loss and waist trimming without ever having to step foot in a gym. The problem is, this is completely false. In actuality, all it will help you do is look slightly smaller only while you’re wearing it, be terribly uncomfortable out in public, and reveal the same body fat you started with as soon as you take it off.

One popular claim of waist trainers is that they help induce greater fat loss by enhancing thermic activity within the body. So basically stating that wearing it will make you warmer, and a warmer body will expend more calories- creating fat loss. What they don’t tell you is that a warmer environmental temperature has a fraction of a difference in body composition changes.

To help put that into perspective, total daily energy expenditure is broken up into 4 contributing aspects, one of those being (NEAT) or non-exercise activity thermogenesis. NEAT is shown to contribute just 15% of total daily energy expenditure. This includes pretty much all activities and contributions outside of structured exercise, including walking the dog, doing the dishes, vacuuming, walking to work- daily, casual activities. All of the daily activities that actually take effort to perform combined only make up around 15% of total daily energy expenditure. Knowing that, how infinitesimal of a difference do you think being just slightly warmer for a few hours each day will make? Exactly, not even enough to be concerned with.

Contributors to Daily Energy Expenditure: [1]

Basal Metabolic Rate 70%
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis 15%
Thermic Effect of Food 10%
Exercise Activity Thermogenesis 5%

The only way to lose waist size is to properly diet and create enough of a caloric deficit that the body is forced to use stored fat as energy. If you prefer to cover it up with tightly worn fabric, it’s a free country. But don’t be disappointed when you have spent $100 or more, and 2 months you’re looking at the same physique once you undress in front of your mirror.


Sweat Creams

Expensive Icy Hot, sweat creams are yet another product cashing in on the sensation of “feeling” rather than facts. The suggested benefit of sweat creams is that it increases the sweat rate during exercise and leads to greater caloric expenditure. If that were the case, you could sit in a sauna and lose fat, which by the way- doesn’t work either. The best way to explain why this is would be to acknowledge that sweating typically correlates to increased work output. Usually if you’re working hard by lifting weights, yard work, hiking- you’re sweating. It’s the physical exertion causing you to expend calories, not the sweat coming off your forehead. Simply being in a hot environment isn’t going to produce any notable fat loss, or else kicking it with your girl friends on the beach could get you ripped.

Additional claimed benefits are improved warm up of muscles and aiding in muscle aches. Although it may help improve your ability to warm up before training, so can wearing enough clothes to the gym in the first place, or spending time actually performing a warm up routine prior to training. As for the temporary relief of muscle aches, this may very well be; but so can a much cheaper Icy Hot purchase found at your local pharmacists.

At upwards of $50 or more per bottle, sweat creams are using “feelings” to sell product. It may feel very productive when we sweat, but in reality we’re just losing body weight from water and electrolytes that will return as soon as we eat and hydrate post-workout. Rather than spending money on products that artificially make you sweat more during workouts, you’re much better off putting focus on exerting more effort in the workout itself.


Fitness DVDs

In all fairness, of all the various fitness fads out there, fitness program DVDs do have some merit. For those in situations such as balancing life with a newborn and unable to get away to the gym as often yet still want to remain active and follow a structured program, or someone simply very uncomfortable with their weight, and looking to improve their conditioning a bit before training out in public- some fitness DVDs can be a relatively solid option. After all, if someone’s making the effort to be more active, it’s always a good decision. Finding enjoyment in physical activity is a large part of the battle in improving long-term health. So if starting with some fitness DVDs helps you get excited to workout, definitely don’t feel silly doing so.

That being said, there are some considerations that should be made when buying in to fitness DVDs rather than spending that money to hire a qualified personal trainer or online physique coach; one of those being the ability to learn how to properly program and progress with your training. With pre-set fitness DVDs, you may have some great workouts and improve your fitness during the program, but what that program doesn’t provide is any educational opportunities along the way. Once the fitness DVD is over, your only option is to purchase another DVD, or repeat the same program. By doing so, you limit your opportunity to progressively overload your muscular system or incorporate different training techniques known to effectively induce more consistent progress.

In most cases, if you do your homework and hire a qualified trainer or online coach, you can use those interactions to not only receive programs that work in the moment, but also pick their brain on why those programs work, and the principles behind them. In turn, you come out of your time together with progress you’ve made up to that point, and knowledge you can use for years to come when structuring your own training and nutrition. The money spent is an investment that will pay off, and allow you to progress well beyond the time spent on their specific program, compared to a one-time DVD plan with little to no educational aspects to offer.


Shake Diets

When it comes to these diets, the only people that need a good “shake” are the ones promoting these plans in the first place. You may see solid weight loss initially, but the results don’t stop there, and often lead to much more negative consequences these companies neglect to mention when giving you their pitch.

These shake diets “work” initially because of the much lower calorie intake people receive compared to their previous average intake. Not because they contain anything proven to miraculous improve fat loss.

Low Calories, Metabolic Adaption and Rebound Weight Gain

The biggest downfall in drastically cutting calories is that of rebound weight gain. Initially, cutting calories very significantly can seem fantastic. The number on the scale is likely going to drop very quickly… that is at first. Soon the reality of metabolic adaption and future rebound weight gain comes crashing down on those dieting dreams.

When we reduce our daily food intake, that new caloric deficit creates an environment in which body fat is used as an “energy reserve.” In time, body fat lowers, but only to a certain point. Sooner than later, the weight loss will begin to slow, and larger caloric restrictions will be necessary in order to re-establish further fat loss. This is due to what’s commonly referred to as metabolic adaption, or adaptive thermogenesis, within the research field. Essentially, our bodies have “starvation prevention” mechanisms for survival. As food intake is reduced and body fat stores lower, hormones change and metabolic rates decreases- creating an environment where further fat loss is reduced or prevented without further restricting calories or increasing expenditure. [2][3][4]

By very gradually inducing a caloric restriction, we can mitigate that adaption- allowing for more consistent fat loss before the adaption takes place. So while you may only lose 1lbs the first week, you’re creating a situation where you can lose 1lbs/week much more consistently compared to making a drastic initial restriction. In comparison, if you drastically reduce calories at first, you may lose 3-4lbs that first week- making it appear to have been an amazing dieting decision. Sooner than later though, that rate of loss will not only stall very harshly, but you’ll also begin losing much more muscle tissue along the way, something prevented much more successfully by gradual caloric restrictions.

By going on a very low calorie shake diet, you may lose a lot of weight at first, but believe you me- that won’t last. Pretty quickly, you’ll notice significant losses in energy, strength in the gym, and much greater temptations to fall off the wagon. Not to mention, research has shown the more drastic the weight loss, the more drastic the weight gain after the diet has ended. Rebound weight gain is real, and not only do individuals often gain back all the weight they lost during the drastic diet, but often times gain back MORE weight, leading them to be heavier than they were before they even started dieting. [5]

All this taken together, it’s important to remember that drastic weight loss, often created by drastic dietary restrictions, comes with a price…a price often far greater than the initial payoff from such a diet. These shake-based diets profit by providing very low calorie diets which initially- create some impressive changes to total body weight. However they set individuals up for a very challenging road following the cessation of the diet. A path created by not having any educational opportunities on how to properly reverse diet, track intake with meals other than pre-made shakes, and with the now overwhelming temptation to completely forsake any conscious dieting efforts to instead enjoy meals they have felt forced to completely avoid for months. Avoidance that brings me to my next very important point…


Either stuck with 3 shakes and 2 snacks a day, or left with absolutely no idea of how to approach your intake when traveling or a family event- these plans can create an all-or-nothing mindset. Without knowledge of basic nutrition principles and the ability to track a variety of foods in your daily intake- consumers are left solely dependent on the shake company, and left completely unaware how to function otherwise.

Even if the premise around shake-based diets worked, the reality of long-term adherence still has to be considered. With these programs, customers are forced to stick completely and only to the plan that’s given to them. A plan that isn’t personalized whatsoever, and hundreds of other people are also following the exact same plan. If the plan did work, what happens when you stop following it, or have a vacation or other social gathering arise? What happens when sticking only to those shakes isn’t possible, and you need to make decisions on your own about what and how much you can eat and still make progress?

The rigidity of such plans prevents any sort of flexibility when life happens and you need to make decisions on the fly, by yourself. Instead of following a strictly laid out plan, you’re going to fare far better by hiring someone who can educate you on basic nutrition principles, help you understand the benefit of flexible dieting and learning to choose a variety of foods to meet your daily intake goals, and gain the skills and critical thinking required

Continuing education and incorporating flexibility is the only way to ensure consistent progress.

Protein Quality

These shakes often pitch soy protein as being a healthy, beneficial source of protein. What they don’t tell you is that soy protein has a cheaper production cost than whey, and it’s also been shown time and again to be significantly inferior to whey protein for building and maintaining muscle tissue due to its suboptimal amino acids profile and inability to maximally promote muscle protein synthesis. [6]

Even if you aren’t trying to get completely jacked, protein bioavailability is still a vastly important aspect to a proper diet. Making sure you’re taking in enough quality protein will help you recover better and build more quality muscle tissue, leaving you with an aesthetic physique, improved metabolism, and greater athletic performance. Not to mention a more efficient ability to store carbohydrate within muscle tissue as glycogen rather than as body fat as your muscular system develops. By using soy-based protein shakes, you’re spending as much or more for each shake, and getting FAR less benefit from them. These companies are making more money by saving on production costs while giving you an inferior product.


Go to a mainstream shake-based diet brand’s website and try to look up the supplement facts for a product. Odds are you’ll have a hell of a time finding what exactly is added to those shakes, the protein sources, and certainly not the exact amounts of each ingredient and nutrient. Aside from being borderline illegal, it’s also downright deceptive.

If the products being sold are so amazing, why would a brand make a conscious effort to make those nutrition labels so hard to find before purchasing? Is it because the formulas are so cutting edge they don’t want the competition to know their secret? Nah. Actually within the supplement industry, any major brand pretty much knows exactly how and why products are created how they are. There aren’t any secret formulas anymore, just companies finding new ingredients and new combinations of those ingredients that provide varying degrees of benefit to consumers.

The real reason for hiding those nutrition labels is because any savvy consumer will see them, and realize they’re absolute garbage. These companies rely on the hope customers will take their, and their “independent representatives” word that they’re amazing products, make the purchases, and go bottoms up without ever questioning the formulas or whether or not any actual science can back their claims.

Protein and meal replacement supplements can be VERY helpful when on the go, or simply looking for an additional way to get in your target calories for the day. A solid whey protein supplement can also just be a very high quality protein source to complement your whole food consumption for greater daily amino acid profile. But they’re just that, a supplement, not something to base your entire diet off of.

If you are lucky enough to find some nutrition facts, I guarantee you’ll find a “propriety blend” which is code for not allowing you to see how vastly under formulated the “health” ingredients are within the product. It’s common practice to include fractions of an ingredient shown by science to produce benefits. This saves them in production costs, and leaves with you virtually no benefits from consuming. It isn’t to protect secret formulas; it’s to scam you- pure and simple.

Solely sipping on shakes each day may sound easy, but they can create a myriad of health and body composition issues in the future if relied on for daily nutrition. At the end of the day if you want to make consistent progress and achieve long-term results, nothing can replace a varied, nutrient-dense diet that allows flexibility to choose foods based on availability and preference, and tracked with gradual intake adjustments from week to week. Something these shake companies simply can’t and have zero interest in providing.

If these types of dieting programs create so many long-term issues, and provide such little benefit, then why are so many people praising their use, and encouraging you to join? Oh boy I’m glad you asked!


Multi-Level Marketing in the Fitness Industry

Multi-level marketing (MLM) is nothing more than a good ole’ fashioned pyramid scheme. These “health and wellness” companies are taking a page from the playbooks of people such as Bernie Madoff. Their business model is based around constantly recruiting new members, who pay into the organization, then are rewarded by recruiting more new members.

Get recruited into one of these “life changing” companies as an independent representative, and your first task will be to purchase a huge supplement stack marketed to cover all your nutritional basis and guarantee fat loss in the process. After dropping a few hundred bucks on a stack, you’re then ready to start recruiting more “self-driven and motivated” individuals to spread the good word (enter sarcasm here). I bet you’ll be encouraged to recruit more people, and after you recruit a pre-determined amount, you’ll rise to a higher level within the company and either get a commission, or better discounts on products in return. In the process, you haven’t been spreading the gospel of health; you’ve been building a very profitable pyramid for the people in charge.

Recruit #1 recruits 3 other individuals. Those 3 people buy-in for their start-up package, then each recruit 3 more individuals. Very quickly, fourteen people are already on board and paying into the system, leading to exponentially more recruitment with each and every “independent rep” that signs on. Draw that out for yourself on a piece of paper, and you’ll quickly see why it’s termed a “pyramid scheme” within the business realm.

You see, these companies aren’t designed to grow by providing real results and quality products. They’re designed to deceive more and more people by selling them on miracle claims, and having them recruit even more people that are just as mislead, but convinced they’re going to get rich, change lives, or both. Neither of which ever happens aside from the founders of the pyramid scheme. That is, until they receive enough lawsuits that they are forced to shut down.

The next time someone approaches you very adamantly encouraging you to join the company, consider whether they’re that passionate, or if they are close to reaching their recruitment quota.


Throwing out the Trash

Companies are benefiting from two simple human weakness, denial and naivety. Rather than understanding building a better physique takes serious time, and maintaining health requires daily attention and effort, we as a society would rather listen and believe outright lies that sound much more appealing. Once individuals come to this conclusion and commit to putting in effort over the long haul, THAT is when truly amazing results begin taking place. Results that can be maintained, and results that encourage long-term health and well being, not put it in harm. Times are changing and science is helping support consumers’ decisions more than ever. The age of the snake oil can finally be over, but only if we as a society finally decide we’ve had enough.



  1. Trexler, E. T., Smith-Ryan, A. E., & Norton, L. E. (2014). Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(1). doi:10.1186/1550-2783-11-7
  2. Almundarij, T. I., Gavini, C. K., & Novak, C. M. (2017). Suppressed sympathetic outflow to skeletal muscle, muscle thermogenesis, and activity energy expenditure with calorie restriction. Physiological Reports, 5(4). doi:10.14814/phy2.13171
  3. Fothergill, E., Guo, J., Howard, L., Kerns, J. C., Knuth, N. D., Brychta, R., . . . Hall, K. D. (2016). Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after “The Biggest Loser” competition. Obesity, 24(8), 1612-1619. doi:10.1002/oby.21538
  4. Doucet, E., St-Pierre, S., Alméras, N., Després, J., Bouchard, C., & Tremblay, A. (2001). Evidence for the existence of adaptive thermogenesis during weight loss. British Journal of Nutrition, 85(06), 715. doi:10.1079/bjn2001348
  5. Maclean, P. S. (2006). Peripheral metabolic responses to prolonged weight reduction that promote rapid, efficient regain in obesity-prone rats. AJP: Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 290(6). doi:10.1152/ajpregu.00810.2005
  6. Norton, L. E., Wilson, G. J., Layman, D. K., Moulton, C. J., & Garlick, P. J. (2012). Leucine content of dietary proteins is a determinant of postprandial skeletal muscle protein synthesis in adult rats. Nutrition & Metabolism, 9(1), 67. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-9-67

About the author

About Andrew Pardue
Andrew Pardue

Andrew Pardue is a contest prep coach and the owner of APFitness. With a degree in Exercise Science, minors in Chemistry and Entrepreneurship, and being a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the NSCA - Andrew focuses on science-backed research to develop the most effective training and diet for physique athletes, while keeping long-term...[Continue]

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