Editorial: A skeptic's look at nutritional supplements

ColdFusion is one of 15 locations in the Duluth/Superior area that distributes Herbalife products. According to Mark Hughes, the company's founder, it is the number one nutrition and weight-loss company in the world. Walking into ColdFusion on Superior Street on a Tuesday I could never have expected what I was about to get myself into.  Loud music, smiling faces and an array of Herbalife products lined the bar.

Cold Fusion on Superior Street in Duluth

As I have observed the increase in popularity of this product through my co-workers, colleagues, friends and roommates I became a skeptic in thinking that this was just another fad diet plan and everyone will be on to the next thing in a few months.

Emily Benson, the past owner of Nutritional Balance in Duluth, says that, to ensure proper nutrition, the human body does not need any special supplements to function properly.

She provided her clients the proper education through one-on-one consulting that they would need to eat a balanced diet and potentially lose weight if that was one of their goals.

“It can be confusing out in the public how to read labels and get the proper nutrition,” Benson said in a telephone interview.  “I simplify that.”

As a certified nutrition consultant and certified chef, Benson, with a bachelor's degree in nutrition, has the experience to make her clients trust her.

“In 2 years the business tripled,” she said.

She would take them on trips to the grocery store, give cooking lessons, and engulf herself in their eating habits to help them make better choices.

Benson never had much competition with other health-food businesses because she tailored the program to what the individual needed, avoiding the use of supplements.  She does agree that an occasional multivitamin may be useful if the person is lacking in one specific area.

“In Duluth people do not get a lot of vitamin D, so I may recommend a vitamin,” Benson said.  “People need to learn how to eat healthy and through this program you won’t use any crutches to help you.”

I would have to agree with the way she taught her clients how to make real healthy dishes, never littered with extra vitamins or minerals because the food itself had just what they needed.  I have seen in my own experience that in order to have a long-held success it has to be reasonable, and one people can stick to.

My mother, Deb Renneke, joined Weight Watchers about a year ago and has been just as successful as many of the supporters of dietary shortcuts like Herbalife.  According to its website, Weight Watchers teaches you "to choose delicious foods that can keep you feeling fuller for longer.  There are absolutely no required foods, and the program gives you the flexibility to enjoy extras and treats --which is important to long-term success."

She has learned what foods to buy and cook that are healthy for her but are natural.  She never uses extra supplements to gain nutrition and she has had major success, losing over 15 pounds.  As a young child, I had been taught through the government program My Pyramid that a balanced diet and appropriate exercise is the best choice for a healthy lifestyle. With my mother's success and these life skills ingrained in my head from a young age, I have more than enough reason to be weary of what everyone was boasting about over Herbalife.

Now that it has been over a year and a half since I first learned about Herbalife, I decided that I needed to know what exactly all these people are drinking and if it could be more than just a fad diet.

I had first heard of the product from a former co-worker of mine who was an Herbalife distributer.  She was constantly drinking shakes and teas declaring that this was her way of eating her meals.  I was baffled at the thought of removing eating from my daily habit and was not about to sign up for a months’ supply of the shakes which is about $65.

Now, a year and a half later, I am ready to be proven wrong.

As I entered the product training session for Herbalife I was overwhelmed with smiling faces and amazing testimonials of people who have benefited from this product.

Shawn Hammerbeck, an Herbalife distributor, explained to me that ColdFusion was the first Herbalife nutrition club in Minnesota when it started almost five years ago.

The idea is that to lose weight they will individualize a program for you replacing up to two meals a day with a supplementary shake.  Consuming these shakes, in addition to a few supplementary products, according to Hammerbeck, gives you all of the daily nutrition needed for the day with only a limited amount of calories.

“We customize each plan for the client,” Hammerbeck said.  “This is a relationship business, I have 40-50 active clients and I am constantly checking in with them.”

Depending on if someone is trying to lose weight, maintain proper nutrition or gain weight, a combination of powders and tablets will allow them to see results.

At the meeting I attended which had about 20 people; over one third had lost over twenty pounds.

The ingredients in all of the powdered mixes are the same, it just depends on how many you drink a day, and what other supplement you combine with them to get different results.  If someone is looking to lose weight, potentially they would have to drink two shakes in place of two meals, and then have a balanced third meal high in colored produce, grains, and lean protein.

With these types of results this business is growing rapidly.  With 15 locations now throughout the Twin Ports area, people are starting to catch on that this may not be such a bad thing.

Some believe otherwise, however.  Benson isn’t the only critic of the Herbalife products.  Numerous scientific articles have found the products to potentially be unsafe.  According to an article in the October 2007 Journal of Hepatology, Herbalife products were found to have traces of compounds linked to liver complications, but only in Switzerland and Israel.  While this was discovered, Herbalife products are partly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

According to Herbalife’s website, “Herbalife products contain ingredients either already recognized as safe or otherwise specifically permitted.”

This being said, many of their products include asterisks that lead to small print reading, “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

As a skeptic I remain unsure of whether I want to constantly be drinking my meals away, and while I may never end up signing up as lifetime member at a ColdFusion location, I have opened my own eyes on what Herbalife really is, and how it has changed many lives.

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