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Why You Shouldn't Believe Before And After Photos

by Tina Juan -

Last year, the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a report that studied 300 weight loss ads and found that 40 percent of them made at least one false representation and 55 percent of them had at least one unsubstantiated claim. Diet and Weight Loss Scams

The FTC noted that testimonials and before-and-after photos were commonly used in the ads but "rarely portrayed realistic weight loss."

The FTC report stated, "False or misleading claims are common in weight-loss advertising, and based on our comparison of 1992 magazine ads with magazine ads for 2001, the number of products and the amount of advertising, much of it deceptive, appears to have increased dramatically over the last decade."

The ads that were studied were found not just in TV infomercials and cheap tabloids but also in reliable mainstream newspapers and magazines.

The FTC said that lack of media screening in accepting ads for weight loss gives the products credibility and makes it harder for the public to discern what is true and what is not.

An ordinary person believes that if a trustworthy newspaper or magazine is allowing the ad to be printed, then the claims must be true. Unfortunately, this is not always so.

In the FTC press release, chairman Timothy J. Muris said, "We have known for some time now that there is a serious problem with weight-loss product advertising. This report demonstrates the extent of that problem."

He also said, "Reputable marketers continue to take care to avoid false and misleading claims, but it appears that too many unscrupulous marketers are making false claims promising dramatic and effortless weight loss to sell their products.

"It is not fair to consumers; it is not fair to legitimate businesses, it is illegal, and it will not be tolerated."

Those are fighting words, and while I don't mean to put down the valiant efforts of the FTC to rid the market of unethical advertising practices, the reality is that the FTC has its hands full trying to go after companies making false health and fitness claims because no matter how many they close down, two or three more spring up in place.

The agency has been able to force some big companies who have made false claims to refund their customers (a recent example is the maker of Fat Trapper and Exercise in a Bottle) but they don't have enough manpower and resources to go after the majority of dishonest marketers of weight-loss products.

The only way for the public to be protected is through education. Consumers who are wise to the deceptive practices of weight-loss ads will hopefully have enough discernment to recognize a fake when they see one.

Here are some of the ways advertisers can mislead you with before-and-after photos.

The crudest method is using two different people – a fat out-of-shape person for the "before" and a slim fit person for the "after."

The ads don't claim that they are the same person but the implication is that if you look like the before picture, you can look like the after picture if you use their product. This is misleading because people in the pictures may have different body types.

A short, stocky person cannot look like a long willowy fashion model even if he or she loses weight and gets fit.

But since many consumers are not educated enough or realistic enough to realize that no amount of exercise, diet, or taking of a weight-loss product will change their body to look like that of someone else, there will always be people who will fall for this old trick.

Remember that you can become a better-looking and better-functioning version of yourself but you cannot become someone else.

Other methods use the same person for the before and after pictures but twist the truth.

One ploy is claiming the results were achieved in a much shorter period of time than how it really happened.

For example, the ad might say, "You can have rock-hard abs in just three weeks" when the truth is it took the person in the pictures years to achieve that look. Additionally, the person may not even have used the product but has allowed his or her picture to be used (for a generous fee, of course) to imply that.

It is much easier to make a fit body look unfit than to do it the other way around. So, a common practice is to pay a fit person to gain weight (imagine being paid to eat all the pizza and ice cream you want), wait for a couple of weeks, then take a picture and use that photograph as the "before." Then wait again as the person gets back in shape and take the "after" picture.

You might be thinking at this point, wouldn't it be easier just to pay customers who are using the product to endorse it and give their before-and-after pictures?

Yes, it would be easier if you really had customers who had spectacular results in terms of looks and how long it took to achieve. That's just the point. Many of these products don't work, or if they do, they don't work as well or as fast as they say they do. That's why they resort to misleading methods like the one just mentioned.

When it comes to selling muscle supplements, bodybuilders are sometimes hired as models and instructed to stop taking steroids and refrain from working out.

When they have lost enough muscle to look puny and flabby, the "before" picture is taken. A few months after going back on steroids and training hard, they are ready for the "after" picture.

This is according to Bob Whelan, author of the article "The Bodybuilding Disgrace" that was posted on Whelan also says that for added drama and "proof" that the product being advertised is effective, the model is sometimes photographed holding a newspaper headline.

Here's a real-life example of how a major weight loss supplement company allegedly manipulated before and after pictures for its ads.

Cytodyne, makers of Xenadrine, a popular "fat-burning" supplement, is being sued by Jason Park, a La Jolla, California resident, for falsely claiming that its product is safe and effective and for using misleading before-and-after pictures.

Last month, Penni Crabtree, a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune, reported on some of the details of the ongoing trial.

She wrote that Mike Piacentino of Los Angeles was one of the customer testimonials used in a Xenadrine ad, which stated that Piacentino was able to lose 46 pounds of fat in 10 weeks while putting on 12 pounds of lean muscle mass because of the product's "incredible fat burning power." But in a signed declaration, Piacentino, a bodybuilding competitor, said he was paid by a Cytodyne employee to stop working out and gain as much weight as possible in three weeks after which the "before" picture would be taken.

Piacentino further stated in his declaration that on the day of the picture taking, he was instructed to wear long baggy pants to hide his muscular legs and tie up the drawstring pants below his stomach to make it look like he had a "hanging gut." He was also told to stand in a slouched posture, distend his abdomen, and frown.

According to Piacentino, Cytodyne then supplied him with Xenadrine as well as other supplements, which he took for 14-16 weeks. He said that one week before the "after" photo was supposed to be shot, he was told to take a diuretic to lose as much water weight as possible.

Piacentino stated that his pictures were false for several reasons: He did not just take Xenadrine as the ad implied but he took numerous supplements. It took him 16 weeks to lose weight, not 10 weeks as stated in the ad. And finally, Xenadrine did not make him develop 12 pounds of lean muscle because he had already had it from years of working out.

Crabtree wrote that Piacentino is now being sued by Cytodyne for defamation and breach of contract. Piacentino's lawyer, meanwhile, has submitted his client's affidavit to the Department of Justice and is asking for an investigation because of the alleged witness tampering and intimidation by Cytodyne.

Actually, marketers of weight-loss and muscle-building supplements don't even have to go as far as Piacentino claims he was instructed to do because with the right lighting and posing, a good photographer and skilled bodybuilder can produce a weight loss "miracle" in a couple of minutes.

TC Luoma writes a weekly column called "The Atomic Dog" for Testosterone Magazine.

In the online version,, he features a visual example of how bodybuilder Davin Ramatour goes from fat to fab in just five minutes (the length of time it took to change his shorts and for the crew to change the lighting and background, according to Luoma).

If you want to see this amazing transformation for yourself, go to You may never look at another before-and-after picture in a muscle magazine the same way again.

Not all before-and-after pictures are dishonest. Dermatologists and cosmetic surgeons use photographs to keep a documented record of their work.

But these photographs have to be taken under the same conditions each time (angle, lighting, lens exposure, etc.) to be accurate. Unfortunately, in today's digital age, it is so easy to alter a photograph. The only way to be really sure is to put your trust in the ethics and integrity of the doctor or company involved.

Just for fun and to see examples of how digital artists can convincingly change a slim person into a fat one, go to This strange site gets its kicks from turning slim celebrities like Britney Spears and Ashley Judd into heftier versions of themselves.

The pictures with subtle changes (10-20 pounds added) look very realistic. The ones that try to make Calista Flockhart look like "the fat lady" in the circus end up looking a little fake. Like I said, it's a strange site.

There are even several tutorials that give you step-by-step instructions on how to make your friends (or enemies) look like they have gained weight. It is logical to assume that by using opposite techniques, you can doctor the picture of a fat person to look like they have lost weight.

In closing, be smart and remember always that it is a "caveat emptor" or "buyer beware" market when it comes to weight-loss and muscle-gaining supplements.

About Tina Juan

Tina Juan TINA JUAN is a certified fitness professional by the American Council on Exercise and the American College of Sports Medicine. She teaches group exercise, strength training, Pilates, and yoga. She co-founded and developed the Association of Fitness Professionals of the Philippines (now called Fitness Philippines Network), a 16-year old non-profit organization devoted to continuing education for fitness professionals.

She educates the public through her website, weekly newspaper column, monthly magazine columns, and fitness show. She is a resource speaker for medical conventions and post-graduate courses, corporate wellness programs, and civic groups.

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