How does the weight loss heavyweight really measure up? We asked a nutrition expert for his honest opinion about whether the billion dollar meal replacement company actually works
With global sales reaching $5 billion*, numerous sports sponsorships of the world’s most sought-after teams and athletes (counting Cristiano Ronaldo, LA Galaxy and Indian cricket star Virat Kholi among others), millions of customers and the title of the ‘world’s no.1 meal replacement’ shake under its belt, at first glance it seems that Herbalife has established itself as a driving force in the weight management market. However, if we were to dig a little deeper, do its products actually deliver on their promises?
Founded in 1980 in Los Angeles, the global nutrition company has gone on to operate in over 90 countries, establishing a workforce of nearly 8,000 employees and a roster of products focusing on weight loss, meal replacement, protein shakes, energy, fitness, supplements, skincare and haircare.
Its rise to popularity hasn’t come without its controversies though. Over the years, it has been reported that the company has had to withstand lawsuits about inflated claims about its products and its sales practices, reaching realms of fame that go beyond just the remits of weight loss. However despite the disputes, the company and its sales are still as big as ever and so we had to ask, ‘Are its products really worthy of the hype?’
We asked respected celebrity nutritionist and Get The Gloss Expert Martin Macdonald to provide his honest and frank opinion of the brand’s claims and to weigh in on each of its ‘Product Solutions’ (in terms of its health, weight control and fitness ranges specifically) to see whether they’re really worth investing our money in or not.
The Weight Management range...
Comprising of protein shakes, snack bars, protein powders and supplements, this particular range is identified by the brand as the one to help consumers lose, gain or maintain their weight.
Designed to be used in conjunction with exercise, healthy eating and guidance from the brand’s Herbalife coaches, they claim to aid a healthy, active lifestyle with the support of the coaches making it stand out from other diets out there. The product that takes centre-stage though is Formula 1 - touted on the site as the global leader in meal-replacement shakes.
Its ‘Swap it for a shake’ video summarises its key messaging - “Underpinned by science,” it exclaims in large capitals, “Substituting two daily meals of an energy restricted diet with a meal replacement like F1 helps weight loss” - does this apply to both the short and long-term though?
Martin isn’t convinced. “This is perhaps their ‘worst’ range however I would hazard a guess that it is their most profitable. The range simply works by providing a framework whereby they reduce their calorie intake by swapping food for pills and powders. This is a quick fix that more often than not, does not last. However, during consultations with clients I so often find that the individual feels that they failed the diet, not the fact that the ‘shake diet’ failed them by being unsustainable and unhealthy. Another reason this type of diet ‘works’ in the short term is that people swap ALL food, for two of their meals for very low calorie shakes. People then create an identity whereby ‘I don’t eat food’ which can actually make dieting easier. The problem is, when they inevitably go back to eating food, nothing has changed. If Herbalife posted ‘Before’, ‘After’ and ‘After the After’ photos, no-one would buy these products.”
Can they prove detrimental to our health in his opinion? “The meal replacement supplements consist of a low quality protein source, sugar (8-9 teaspoons/100g) and a small amount of vitamins and minerals. Other supplements include fibre supplements to replace that lost from eating real food as well as ‘uppers’ to make you feel less terrible on such a diet. Extreme diets can of course be detrimental to your physical health however, it’s my opinion that the main issue with these programs are the psychological damage they do. The problem is, we can’t measure this but I have encountered these issues perhaps hundreds of times in my career.”
He adds, “There really isn’t a saving grace in this range. The products are either of poor quality or have no legitimate evidence for what they claim to do e.g. ‘Activate’ or ‘Cleanse’ cells.”
When it comes to the brand’s ‘Swap it for a shake,’ meal in a glass marketing strategy, Martin has similar reservations with a particularly interesting criticism of the way the products are distributed. “As per the Herbalife framework, I do not like it at all. If the shakes were more adequate for health it would be a start, however, the main issue is the complete lack of qualified advice given by individuals who distribute Herbalife,” says Martin. According to its Corporate Profile, “Herbalife products are sold exclusively to and through a network of Independent Herbalife Members.” Its products are not sold in shops.
Led by its own Herbalife Nutrition Advisory Board (NAB), comprising of experts in nutrition, science and health, the brand’s website states that the NAB, “Helps educate and train Independent Herbalife Members...on leading a healthy, active lifestyle and getting proper nutrition, including the purpose and use of Herbalife products.” According to Herbalife’s website on becoming a Member, it also highlights the potential business opportunities on offer too, "By becoming a Herbalife Member you can boost your income while helping people meet their nutritional needs. Working either full or part time to fit your schedule, you can build your own business and sell proven, high-quality products which are not available in the shops. The exclusivity of our products will help you to build a base of long-term customers, who will turn to you for tailored support and advice."
It also states,“You do not need to be a nutrition expert to become a Member as you receive all the guidance you need. When you sign up, you will benefit from detailed instruction from your personal Herbalife coach who will be on hand to answer your questions and help you complete your training.”
This to Martin, is where extra caution should be taken in his experience. “There is absolutely no qualification required to become a distributor, however these individuals then start giving nutrition and exercise advice which quite frankly can be dangerous. I have no problem admitting that I am happy to use short term ‘quick’ measures to help clients lose weight, however, those measures look nothing like the Herbalife framework and they come alongside education on long-term behaviour change once the weight has been lost.”
Sounds pretty damning. Do the shakes have any place in a weight management program at all? Speaking about their development, Dr David Heber, Chairman of Herbalife’s Nutrition Advisory Board states, “Shakes simplify weight management and nutrition for wellness by simplifying the development of personalised diet plans matching dietary protein to individual needs based on body composition. Research demonstrates that adequate protein combined with exercise can help maintain lean body mass during weight loss and can promote muscle protein synthesis when building muscle through resistance exercise. It is important to note that shakes are not meant to provide all the food in a diet but should be used with a diet of low fat, high protein foods, colourful fruits and vegetables. Refined carbohydrates should be limited except for athletes during prolonged endurance sports.”
So protein has its place, but it’s more a question of amount and quality, opting for the whey protein and food options over the small amounts of soy and even smaller amounts of dairy proteins in Formula 1 according to Martin. “The use of whey protein shakes (not soy) is actually well documented in the research to be a viable option for improving an individual’s body composition,” he says. “Using them as a tasty (yes, some of them taste very nice) snack instead of low protein junk foods is a piece of advice I often give!”
The Energy and Fitness range...
Tackling training and recovery, the 4 products in this line have been formulated to specifically address sports nutrition - but does it fare better than the last? “This is a slightly better range if we include the Herbalife24 products within it,” says Martin. “The range again relies heavily on soy protein, a cheap option compared to the higher quality whey proteins, however as mentioned some of the Herbalife24 range do contain adequate amounts of whey protein. Likewise, they do have energy products that will work as they essentially come down to providing sugar in an easy to consume format.”
Are they worth investing in, in Martin’s estimation? “For me the answer comes down to cost; is buying the effective ingredients that Herbalife sell a cost effective strategy? There are a lot of myths surrounding supplements and the truth is that most companies are selling much the same things but with different labels. Therefore, buying the cheapest options is often the best bet! This can be a difficult message to swallow due to our inbuilt connection between price and quality. The range contains some caffeine products which, if used at the right time and dose will indeed make you feel more energised. Or you could just have a cup of coffee. Other supplements such as the ‘QuickSpark’ have next to zero evidence of a performance benefit in humans.
“Certainly there are other options and it would depend on the product as to whether it is ‘better’. We now know there is a lot of research on milk as a rehydration and recovery drink. However, without the fancy label and marketing it is not quite as alluring.”
The Targeted Nutrition range...
If you’re looking for a supplement to help boost overall health, this 6 product range claims to give “your body the specific targeted nutritional support it needs.” From night-time supplements to ones offering omega-3, calcium, fibre and digestive benefits, are they worth incorporating into your diet? “This range, perhaps, has the least misinformation surrounding it however, it is also the least extensive range,” notes Martin. “These products are simply ‘extras’ that some people may want to take to legitimately supplement their diet with extra essential fatty acids, for instance. There are calcium, fibre and antioxidant supplements within this range which again, if individuals truly understand why these would be needed, could be used effectively.”
Are they worth spending your money on in Martin's opinion? “I would not purchase from Herbalife simply because of the way the products are sold,” he says. “Anyone selling you Herbalife stands to gain from you purchasing. The whole culture of this brand is one of ‘profit before health’. You can guarantee that the information you are getting is from someone who is simply parroting a marketing spiel with no true understanding of what any of it means. It is not that people who sell Herbalife are bad people, it is simply that they know no better. People don’t realise that there aren’t laws regulating the misinformation that companies use to sell their products. Neither the consumer, nor the well-meaning distributor are protected.”
Should your eating habits fall short, there are more economical options available according to Martin. “Eating a diet that does not require you to supplement with calcium and antioxidants is a far better way to go about things. Many people do not like or do not eat enough oily fish so I often find myself recommending a fish oil supplement however, there are many other cheaper and just as effective (if not more) brands out there.”
Is Herbalife worthy of the hype?
In a nutshell, it appears not according to our expert. “Most certainly not for any good reasons,” says Martin. “Herbalife is no doubt a huge success, rightly or wrongly. I can’t say for sure why it is so successful, but I’d guess it’s not because it is particularly unique in its effectiveness but more so because of a very successful marketing strategy combined with a somewhat questionable method of distribution.”
In terms of his experiences with Herbalife in his clinic he adds, “I have come across Herbalife many times - I see many people who have been failed by one fad or another. I have never recommended it to clients however, that is not to say I don’t recommend supplements - it’s just that Herbalife have never had a type of supplement that wasn’t better elsewhere.”
*net sales in 2014, Herbalife Corporate Profile European Union.