The inspiration for this post was born out of a brief plane ride home from Phoenix last weekend. I was fresh off of a week of amazing food and boatloads of vitamin D; my heart and my belly were full. As we boarded, I deliberately took the dreaded middle airplane seat so that my husband and son could stay busy by the window seat. 🙂
This gave me the opportunity to sit next to my other seat mate, an older woman in her mid-60s. We struck up a pleasant conversation almost immediately. At one point in the flight, several thousand feet below I spotted the small town of Wickenburg, AZ and nostalgically told her that I had previously worked in an Eating Disorder Rehab Facility in Phoenix. Questions began to pour out of her as she explained that she had 4 granddaughters and often worried about their nutrition. Shaking her head, she told me how she currently works with YoungLife and has seen the devastation of eating disorders in young girls. So, when our conversation inevitably turned to my line of work as a dietitian, she really perked up…
It turns out, this woman had just come from a weekend sales conference for a popular online supplement company called Isagenix (another in a long line of MLM companies), and she was bursting to tell me her Isagenix testimony. So, I allowed her. Actually, you could say I encouraged her because, truth be told, I was very curious.
Curious mainly because I’ve encountered a frustrating amount of cagey-ness surrounding MLM “nutrition plans” and I am rarely been able to get a straight answer on just what they entail. Simply trying to navigate these diet company websites is a labor of patience, as it’s often hard to locate the full ingredient lists, the prices, or the supposed research. Mostly you’re wading neck-deep in testimonials. Now, I will give credit to Isagenix for being more transparent about these topics than most other MLM websites. I was, indeed, able to locate all ingredients and most prices, but not without having to dig through layers upon layers of testimonials with before/after pictures.
Anyway, she launched into the story of her husband’s incredible 60-lb weight loss in two months, and how these products have changed her life. She had never felt more alive and free! As we chatted, the flight attendant came by with complimentary snacks and beverages, and my ears perked up as I listened to her refuse her beverage,
“I only drink ionized water” she explained. “They’ve done tests that the heavy metals in our water cause disease, you know.”
The flight attendant gave her an obvious side-eye and, this time without asking, handed all of us some packaged nuts and graham crackers.
“Would you like to have my snacks? All those processed ingredients, you know.”
She handed me her grahams and nuts, and I happily dug into them.
“Yeahhh…” I said, mouth full.
As I ate, my attention turned to her tray and I watched with great interest as Isagenix products began to materialize out of her purse and line up like little soldiers at attention. In a tone that probably betrayed some excitement, I inquired, “So what do you eat on your Isagenix plan?”
Thrilled by the green light, she dove into the sales pitch. And for the next hour, she told me about the various products she uses. There were probably 6 or 7 products in her daily arsenal…
- Shakes made with “denatured whey” from New Zealand grass fed cows
- Supplements with the “the highest possible quality of nutrition that goes to the brain”
- Tiny chocolate squares (think Ghirardelli singles) that “give you natural energy”
- Energy tablets to chew between meals
- Energy liquid shots (think 5-hour energy) to take between meals
- …and of course, Protein bars (your typical low carb, Zone-bar situation)
She went on to describe her daily meal plan, which wasn’t too complicated because it was virtually the same food day after day. Essentially, you eat only a shake for breakfast, a shake for lunch, and then a meat & veg dinner. You can snack on endless veggies throughout the day (woohoo!). If you are trying to lose weight, dinner must also be calorie restrictive. “And the best part, you’re not even hungry…” she whispered.
The stark contrast between her initial proclamation of “feeling so free” against the backdrop of her special product tote that she brought everywhere just so she could eat, was starting to grate on me. I was getting a vivid picture of this woman’s world: a great deal of fear around food and a significant amount of body shame culminating in a blind allegiance to her MLM company and product evangelism. This woman had what seemed like a very full life, yet she spent the majority of her mental energy on food.
“I’d imagine this must be an expensive plan,” I ventured. “With your ingredients being of the highest quality, and also being an MLM company that goes 6-levels deep. A product like this would have to be PRETTY expensive to both offer high quality and pay the sales reps… all 6 levels of them.”
(hence the term Multi Level Marketing Company, aka pyramid scheme)
“Oh no! It’s really not.”
“Well, it’s more expensive than AdvoCare. But the secret is that you sell enough to other people that your products basically pay for themselves.”
(and the other shoe drops)
Why am I not surprised. This is the very same MO of nearly every fad diet on the market. The Isagenix plan is your typical calorie- and carb-restricted diet (just like the AdvoCare plan.. the Visalis plan.. the Omni Plan). There is nothing special about it other than the exorbitant price (for example, $743 for weight loss supplement package). And, similar to all other MLM companies, it will either bleed you dry financially or make you some money if you find others to buy in.
The pricing information (albeit confusing) is listed on their website, here. By my estimates, eating 2 shakes a day, a protein bar, an energy-chocolate, and an energy shot, would run about $453 a month in product for one person. ($3.85 per shake, $3.60 per bar, and $1.80 per energy chocolate, and $2 per energy shot. = 15.10 x 30 days). Phew…. That rivals my family’s monthly grocery bill.
But, keep in mind, this is not unreasonable in comparison to other companies. AdvoCare charges $200 for their “24 day cleanse” which is virtually just fancy vitamins and a meal replacement shake. You still have to buy all your food.
“So, tell me about the science… You said this company has been around for over 10 years, have they done any long-term trials? Any thing you can hang your hat on?”
She thought about this for a moment…
“Yes – but they aren’t on the Isagenix website. Someone would have to send you the link.” She went on.. “I have to tell you, I don’t really know about the science. At the Isagenix conference, we mostly just heard people’s testimonies.”
Now, its entirely possible that there was some discussion of research at her conference, and she just didn’t listen. Later, I did go to the Isagenix website; lo and behold there are, in fact, two studies (1, 2) cited using Isagenix products. But let’s just say, it would’ve been better that they listed NO resources than the ones they did:
The first study is an 8-day trial (red flag), involving intermittent fasting (red flag), with 60 participants (red flag), and no follow up to check on weight or blood values at one, two, or ideally five years out (red flag). Participants starved themselves for 6 days (literally ate <1000 calories daily) and then ate nothing on the 7th day (RED FLAG). Participants lost weight …shocking.
The second study is nearly identical to the first, only with 55 participants and it lasted 10 months. But again, we have the same issue: no follow up at 1-5 years to see if health improvements were maintained. Why is that important? Because <1 year studies are often able demonstrate initial improvements in lipids, sugars, cholesterol, and weight. But carry out the trial for 2-5 years and, every single time, these improvements are not sustained long term by dieting and/or weight loss. (References to follow)
Back to my story…
When my friend realized she had exhausted every possible avenue to sell me on her product, she naturally turned instead to finances and emotion: my anxiety of being away from my babies while I work to support our family. This brings us to the last section of her sales pitch that I jokingly describe as:
The Final Kill:
“Hon, it breaks my heart that you have to be a working mom and spend all that time away from your family. It’s not natural for a mama to be away from her babies for 10 hours a day. I can tell its hard on you! With Isagenix, you can be a stay at home mom! You never have to miss those precious moments… PLEASE look into the company. My heart just goes out to you. PLEASE. Do it for me.”
I really have to hand it to her – if I were more vulnerable about my body, my family, or my finances, she probably would’ve had me – hook, line and sinker. It was clear that I didn’t believe in the validity, safety or efficacy of her product, so she took the opportunity to sell me a fantasy of being a stay at home mom and making millions.
While it would’ve been easy to be annoyed with this women, I honestly wasn’t for two reasons:
1. She genuinely believed what she was telling me.
2. She was clearly stuck in the (financial and emotional) mire of the dieting cycle. My annoyance was quickly stomped out by compassion. She is as much a victim of the dieting industry as the people she ropes in to it.
Why you couldn’t pay me a million dollars to work for Isagenix – or any other MLM supplement company.
5 reasons in no particular order:
1. Money is made off the backs of fat people
I will not support a company that makes money off of the blatant shaming of another human being. MLM companies like Isagenix, AdvoCare, Visalis, Omni, etc. make money off of our collective fear of fatness and the shame associated with fatness. Implicit in their messages are the following myths and social constructs:
– Weight loss is healthy and achievable for anyone.
– Fatness is ugly, unhealthy, and something to be feared by everyone.
– If you aren’t young, wealthy, thin and in a relationship – you’re wrong.
– If you are fat, you must be unhealthy, stupid, and lazy.
– If you are thin, you are probably a person of higher moral standards, smart, and driven.
People invest in diets out of fear and shame. Those of us who are ashamed of their bodies are more likely to buy things that promise we will find self-love. As long as people are terrified of becoming fat, they will strive to become thin by any means (expensive, harmful, even potentially fatal). This obviously works in a diet company’s favor.
But listen, as long as our culture is permitted to bully and stigmatize fatter people, no one is safe in their body. As long as fatter people are attacked and discriminated against in the name of health, thinner people will live in perpetual fear of becoming fat. The rates of eating disorders and body shame in our friends, children and even parents will continue to climb. When it’s allowable and advisable to scrutinize one type of body, we open up the judgement to everyone’s body. When we make food and body weight a moral issue – we are all vulnerable. I will not support that.
2. Gender constructs abound:
– Men should be big and muscley.
– Women can never be too thin.
– A woman’s value is summed up in whether men want to have sex with her (regardless of whether she wants to have sex with them) and if she is in a relationship.
3. Money is made off the vulnerable.
When people are desperate, clawing to get closer to the stereotypical definition of beauty, they are willing to take almost any risk (be it financial risk, health risk, or mental/psychological risk). Someone who is ashamed of their body is more likely to pay an exorbitant cost for the promise of thinness or health. But how many of us can afford $500+ a month in supplements? I sure can’t… therefore, buyers are placed between a rock and a hard place. In order to keep up the expensive product orders, they have to find other buyers to bear their financial burden. To me, this reads as extremely poor stewardship.
4. Long term research supports the futile and harmful nature of dieting
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez/17469900 (link goes to study)
“You can initially lose 5 to 10 percent of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back. We found that the majority of people regained all the weight, plus more. Sustained weight loss was found only in a small minority of participants, while complete weight regain was found in the majority. Diets do not lead to sustained weight loss or health benefits for the majority of people…In addition, the studies do not provide consistent evidence that dieting results in significant health improvements, regardless of weight change. In sum, there is little support for the notion that diets lead to lasting weight loss or health benefits.”
“We believe the ultimate goal of diets is to improve people’s long-term health, rather than to reduce their weight. Our review of randomized controlled trials of the effects of dieting on health finds very little evidence of success in achieving this goal. If diets do not lead to long-term weight loss or long-term health benefits, it is difficult to justify encouraging individuals to endure them.”
“Although long-term follow-up data are meager, the data that do exist suggest almost complete relapse after 3-5 yr. The paucity of data provided by the weight-loss industry has been inadequate or inconclusive. Those who challenge the use of diet and exercise solely for weight control purposes base their position on the absence of weight-loss effectiveness data and on the presence of harmful effects of restrictive dieting. Any intervention strategy for the obese should be one that would promote the development of a healthy lifestyle. The outcome parameters used to evaluate the success of such an intervention should be specific to chronic disease risk and symptomatologies and not limited to medically ambiguous variables like body weight or body composition.”
“In controlled settings, participants who remain in weight loss programs usually lose approximately 10% of their weight. However, one third to two thirds of the weight is regained within one year [after weight loss], and almost all is regained within five years.”
“Consider the Women’s Health Initiative, the largest and longest randomized, controlled dietary intervention clinical trial, designed to test the current recommendations. More than 20,000 women maintained a low-fat diet, reportedly reducing their calorie intake by an average of 360 calories per day and significantly increasing their activity. After almost eight years on this diet, there was almost no change in weight from starting point (a loss of 0.1 kg), and average waist circumference, which is a measure of abdominal fat, had increased (0.3 cm)”
“Findings from this study suggest that dieting, and particularly unhealthful weight control, is either causing weight gain, disordered eating or eating disorders; serving as an early marker for the development of these later problems or is associated with some other unknown variable that is leading to these problems. None of the behaviors being used by adolescents (in 1999) for weight-control purposes predicted weight loss[in 2006]…Of greater concern were the negative outcomes associated with dieting and the use of unhealthful weight-control behaviors, including significant weight gain…Our data suggest that for many adolescents, dieting to control weight is not only ineffective, it may actually promote weight gain”
5. Research supports a strong connection between dieting (or weight loss attempts) and eating disorder development
– A study of 14-15yo adolescent girls who engaged in strict dieting behaviors were 18x more likely than their non-dieting peers to develop an eating disorder within six months
– Parental conversations with teens focused on weight produced more dieting/weight control behaviors, as well as binge eating
– 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders
Folks, eating disorders are not isolated to white, middle-class women trying to be thinner. The restrictive eating spectrum (rigidity, guilt, and shame around food) spans many different ages and cultures, and abounds just as commonly in men and boys trying to bulk up and lean out. In fact, the most rapidly growing age category of eating disorders is in 40- to 50-year old women. Cajoling and shaming people into “healthier choices” based off their fear of fatness and disease is a dangerous road to go down. Shame never produces positive, lasting change. Rather, shame produces isolation, addiction, disordered eating, and poor health outcomes.
My work as a registered dietitian specializing in eating disorder recovery is diametrically opposed to dieting companies for this very reason. As someone on the front-lines, working with a shockingly high rate of students with disordered eating – I see companies like Isagenix, AdvoCare, Visalis, Omni. etc. as a grim form of job-security.
Profiteering off of body shame is something I will never, ever be apart of. Not for all the money in the world.