Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

The science behind Herbalife

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A while ago I received a request to blog about supplements, in particular Herbalife. I’ve procrastinated on it for a little while because I figure you’ve read about one weight loss supplement scam, you’ve read about them all. Plus, I wasn’t all that familiar with Herbalife and the products they sell and I knew it would take me a little time to look at all of them.

The product lines include: core products, weight management, targeted nutrition, energy and fitness, and outer nutrition. They include everything from soy nuts to protein shakes to canola oil capsule. Yep, canola oil in a capsule. Why anyone would ever want to pay for capsules when you can buy a lovely jug of canola oil at the grocery store for what I’m sure is a much more reasonable price (prices aren’t listed on the Herbalife site) and can actually use to cook with is beyond me. It takes all kinds I suppose.

Herbalife even has a little tab at the top of their website entitled “science“. Which would be awesome if it actually linked to science to support the use of the products their selling. Sadly, no, this is what you get:

“Herbalife products are made from beneficial ingredients and developed using world-class scientific technology and research. Our protein shakes and snacks, vitamins and dietary supplements, energy and fitness drinks, and skin and hair care products, combined with healthy eating and exercise, can help you enjoy a lifetime of good health.”

They then provide a link to a PDF where you can “learn more”. This is a one pager, with plenty of images, that says:

“Herbalife products are formulated by our team of scientists and Ph.D.s for consumer benefits. They also ensure that the science behind our products is substantiated through scientific literature and clinical trials. We share knowledge and best practices through our key partnerships with the most advanced and established ingredient suppliers in the world.”

They name their chairman of the board, David Heber MD, PhD. Naturally, I looked him up. At first glance he appears quite reputable (aside from his willingness to peddle questionable nutritional supplements). He’s a professor at the UCLA school of medicine, an endocrinologist, nutrition specialist… But wait, if you just add “quack” after his name in google you get some much more interesting results; such as, this blog post about his authorship of several questionable diet books, his promotional video for pistachio nuts, and his research (funded by POM Wonderful) you guessed it, extolling the wonders of pomegranate juice. One blog not enough for you? How about a listing on Quack Watch linking to the article Herbalife Cozies Up With UCLA? Which outlines the financial benefits Heber receives from Herbalife in exchange for his promotion of their products? Or this post on Science-Based Medicine detailing the tangled web of Heber’s nutritional genomics research, funding, and chairmanship of the Herbalife board?

This is their credible scientist. A man who is receiving substantial profit from the sale of Herbalife supplements as well as funding for his research. No conflict of interest there. Nope.

Making Herbalife an even more questionable business is the fact that it appears to be a pyramid scheme. You can become an Herbalife distributor and make money selling Herbalife products to others. Despite this sales technique, a judge dismissed a case accusing Herbalife of being a pyramid scheme in July of this year.

The Herbalife website entices you to “get your Herbalife Coach today”. This coach will help you with your goals, product selection, and provide you with solutions and support during your journey to health. Who are these wellness coaches? People who sign-up to be Herbalife distributors through people who signed-up to be Herbalife distributors through people who signed-up to be Herbalife distributors. You get the idea. Apparently there’s some online training that you can take. I’m sure that’s pretty much like being a dietitian. I was hoping to find a disgruntled former Herbalife coach online who would reveal what the coach “training” entailed, but all I turned-up was this article about a woman who lost a large sum of money as a Herbalife distributor. And this blog post by a woman who was angered by her experience with an Herbalife Health and Wellness Coach. Essentially, as a Herbalife coach you’re a glorified sales person.

So, to sum it all up: Herbalife is a company with a dubious sales model, selling questionable products (I’m being generous here) that’s run by a doctor with a clear lack of integrity. If you want soy nuts, go to the Bulk Barn. Don’t waste your money supporting a despicable company like Herbalife.

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Author: Diana

I'm a registered dietitian from Nova Scotia, living and working in Ontario, Canada. My goal is to help people relearn how to have a healthy relationship with food.

16 thoughts on “The science behind Herbalife

  1. I saw a client one time because she was using Herbalife because the sales person (“Health Coach”) had an article from another Herbalife consumer about how with Herbalife she is free all the problems she was having with Chron’s. This consumer was using 20 products and readily admits she has spent a lot of money on her limited salary in hopes of finding relief from Chron’s. Once we talked about her diet and I had read the ingredients I explained that she should not being using these supplements as likely this may be part of the problem. She agreed to keep a food journal. After one month off the supplements and learning from her journal her problem foods she happily reported that she has not felt this great in a long time – years.

    Never been and likely will never be a fan of a pyramid scheme company.

    Love reading your articles – serious but light hearted

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  2. Thank you for blogging about this. As a doctor I’m also concerned about the cases of Herbalife and similar companies’ “natural” herb products suspected to lead to liver problems, even up to liver failure, even though more recent analysis finds the evidence not so conclusive. Still it’s not worth your money, period.

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  3. I was just having a conversation two days ago of a very similar nature about this company to a friend. Great article – thank you. Once again, we need to be educating people about eating well. I pity to think how much money is spent on these products rather on real nutritious quality food…

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  4. I love your article about it… (the new one, too). Many of my fellow classmates (now dietitians) are working with the products now…. it’s just a group dynamic. I too signed up to be a distributor once (a friend of mine pushed me to do it and i was curious) and did the training… never sold anything though because first of all I don’t support advising supplements if not necessary, I did not agree with their nutritional advices (e.g. too much protein), plus i felt sick every time i tried the shake… From following the journey of some distributors i understand their motivation to be part of the herbalife “family” because they really make it a family … i don’t think it has much to do with the products… they would sell anything (also skin products)….

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  5. Have ever used the products??
    Have you supplemented whole food eating with these?
    How many people have you helped to change their lifestyle and habits.

    Let the haters hate. Ive read your posts.
    not much substance at all. Get over yourself….if you can and look at the thousands and thousands of changed lives…

    I believe youre out of school!! No idea what youre talking about…..just aiming for a target.
    You need to learn a bit more about this fantastic company and its excellent products.
    But learning takes effort….that probably excludes you.

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  6. Anthony, I feel you are out of line. One does not need to use a product to learn about the benefit/pseudo benefit/harm. I am sure many peoples lives have been changed by teaching whole food, moderation, and exercise. Even when using Herbalife it depends on how committed a person is to making the change. Will always encourage change in diet/lifestyle.

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  7. I believe that whatever one says, another person can disagree with. Your blog would be more credible if you presented both good and bad side of the coin, but as you admitted at the beginning it would take you “a little time”. I am a proud Herbalife Member for 5 years and what I learned about nutrition thanks to Herbalife is priceless.
    I too sometime have a great impatience problem and want to resolve things by clicking on the Science button to know it all. No! It does not work like that and you know it too. You drew a conclusion in a few paragraphs. Good luck to your followers! Herbalife, like every other company is made of humans (sinners if you like), but is it attracting all crooks? Not all of them, but a lot. It’s true, but Herbalife is strongly after them and forcing them out by making their lives miserable. That’s where the proud bit comes from. I mustn’t forget to say THANK YOU to all of Herbalife’s critics, as you play a big part in that too.
    I feel great on the Herbalife products, my immediate and extensive family feel great on them my customers do too, and those whom stick with me, came to me alone, because they saw my results and perseverance in changing my bad habits. Our GP became my occasional client by purely seeing our results. My two and half years old girl is on her daily Herbalife shake and Aloe drink since she was 6 months old after the Pediatrician’s consent, growing strong.

    Please take my comment not as a complaint about your work, but as an integrating part to your research.

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    • In my opinion, there isn’t a “good side” to present about this company. As a dietitian I feel it’s my role to provide people with credible nutrition information, not to present every side to every story in equal light.

      I must admit, I was alarmed to see that you’re giving your young daughter these supplement. You should be aware that the supplement industry is notoriously poorly regulated and many products contain ingredients other than what are listed on the label. Rather than seeing your GP’s support as a positive thing, I would suggest you consider seeking a new GP (or at least not heed his/her advice on nutritional supplements).

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  8. Thank you for your kind concideration regarding my daughter. Rest assured Herbalife products aren’t the core of our lives. I am blessed to live in Lucca, Tuscany where I do the most one can do. I produce my own olive oil, I grow my own vegetables, I have my own chickens for eggs and for the meat because I am not a vegetarian. Whether I like it or not, I must also trust others with what they can offer. I am probably the only person on the planet you will speak to who consumes Bertolli Olive Oil, as Bertolli Villa is right under neath my olive grows. Don’t ask me what is in your Bertolli bottle of oil. It costs me €25 to produce 1 liter of oil how on earth do you buy it cheaper and you are in Canada? All of what I understood from Herbalife dietitians, and medical support is above. There are no corners to be cut as if you don’t pay the price you’ll have to pay the price of the consequence. Herbalife for me is a supplement as you rightly said. Where I can’t get I’ll reach to some else with the same belief. I hated my father’s dedication to the land, and his small animal farm. I left home when I was 17, only to find Herbalife that put me back to where I started from into my farher’s legacy.

    You surely are a great and dedicated professional which I thank you for, but Herbalife isn’t your enemy. We speak the same language and need to work together rather than stamping on each other’s back. You are not a politician who can only prevail if he is nasty enough about the opposition. And yes, your integrity and the dedication to your patients calls for you to tell them the truth, whatever the cost.

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    • True! I completely agree. People are using it for more than 15 years as a part of their lives and they glow and look ageless.
      If yr patient was confident about the product she would not have come to you in the first place. It’s v imp to look for right coach. Like everyone is a doctor but only few are good similarly all r coach but only few are good

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