Want to set up a weight loss scam? Here’s how …

Diet pill manufacturers take advantage of consumers' desire to look and feel better. Flickr/jypsygen

Welcome to part two of The science behind weight loss, a new Conversation series in which we separate the myths about dieting from the realities of exercise and nutrition.

Here, Michael Vagg, Clinical Senior Lecturer at Deakin University’s School of Medicine and Pain Specialist at Barwon Health, takes a light-hearted look at the weight-loss industry:

In our battle with excess weight, Australians spend more than $790m a year on weight-loss products. Many are based on shortcuts that seem to allow users to maintain their existing calorie intake or avoid getting active and still achieve their goal weight.

Manufacturers of these pills, potions, liquids, magnets and devices play on consumers' desire to look and feel better about themselves, knowing that this desire is so great that it’s not hard to convince many to overlook science and common sense and give the products a go.

So how do these products make their way to our shelves and online stores?

Well, surprisingly easily – you don’t even need a product that works. Just follow this (tongue-in-cheek) four-step guide, and human psychology will do the rest.

Step 1: Get yourself an angle

There are several approaches you can use, depending on your scientific literacy, your target market and how much you have to spend.

You have to differentiate your product from the competitors, while guaranteeing you can still operate with low overheads and have the potential to draw in long-term users.

If you’re aiming at the “miracle cure” market, you can make your product as absurd or wacky as you want.

Take some cues from existing products such as these FatBlaster Reducta and Fat Magnet tablets, which claim to use a magnet to help draw the fat out your intestine.

You could take the easy way and select any of the ingredients which the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has already pre-approved as low risk, just as this manufacturer did for its “Mega slim” product. As long as you choose from the list of low-risk ingredients, it’s likely you’ll be able to get your product listed.

If you want to be more sophisticated, you can have a look through the science journals for a little-known, highly technical animal study. You can then extrapolate wildly from the findings of the research, given very few of your prospective consumers will check the references you quote.

Deriving phoney claims from real but obscure science is an excellent way to satisfy the TGA requirement that you “hold evidence” your product aids weight loss.

In addition, this approach will take the watchdog a bit more time and effort to debunk, and you may be able to persuade a health professional or two that your claim is plausible (especially if you make them a franchisee!)

The weight loss industry is worth $790m a year and it’s relatively easy to get a slice. Flickr/Lollyknit