I have compulsively agonized and have been aggressively criticized about my weight for as long as I can remember. So when I was assigned to go undercover into one of the nation's largest weight loss centers, I was understandably eager to start my assignment.
Despite my struggle with weight, my real interest was to see how the program would be introduced from an emotional and nutritional perspective. Sent by "20/20" to three different centers in three different cities, geared with hidden cameras and an alleged "goal" of losing 10 pounds, I was surprised by what I found.
With flashy commercials, the promise of affordable and easy weight loss and over 800 corporate and franchise-operated centers nationwide, LA Weight Loss Centers say it is "the fastest growing company in the $43 billion weight loss industry."
While this weight-loss giant may be rapidly growing, it has also speedily become a target of scrutiny by former clients, ex-employees and even law enforcement officials for allegedly engaging in a "classic bait and switch scam," deceptively advertising low-priced diets and prying on the emotions of clients to sell extras such as bars, shakes and juices.
With all this in mind, I walked into the first center I joined in New Jersey, playing a woman drawn in by catchy commercials, encouraging weight-loss testimonials, and the low advertised program cost of $6 a week. I guarded my self-esteem closely.
I was asked to fill out a comprehensive and somewhat emotionally revealing questionnaire, complete with personal questions about how my weight affects my relationships, family, social life and a medical history. I was introduced to a diet that was simple to follow, logical and seemingly balanced -- smaller portions, lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, limited fats and oils.
The first counselor instructed me to keep a food dairy and encouraged me to commit to weekly motivational visits at the Center. On the surface, the staff was friendly, upbeat and encouraging. My first counselor even described the program as a partnership, which seemed encouraging.
However, before I left the first visit, I would learn that the partnership between LA Weight Loss and myself would cost me nearly $400 up front for my 10 pound, $6 dollar a week diet.
Initially, I took the $400 in stride. After all, this was a commitment to health and fitness, right?
A couple of days later, I came back to the same center for a second visit, and then a third. Just like former clients and ex-employees told me to expect, the hard sell began.
The process was uniform in all three centers in all three cities. Biscotti, shakes, cereal bars, vitamins, popcorn and pasta were only a handful of the products I was aggressively offered to aid my diet quest.
What happened when I resisted?
My answers to the personal questions on the questionnaire I filled out days before were boldly reiterated to convince me that I needed to lose weight. While not required, I was told LA Weight Loss exclusive products would make my weight loss easier.
In Kentucky, I mentioned that my boyfriend had made a comment about my weight. Notes were taken. On the following visit, amidst an attempt to sell me snack bars, a different counselor brought up that comment.