The Cult of Supplements and the Dangers of Multi-Level Marketing

I’ve been in fitness for a long time now and have seen many trends come and go but none as prevalent and as harmful as that of the current multi-level marketing product craze.

Dietary Supplement: a product taken orally that contains on or more ingredients (as vitamins or amino acids) that are intended to supplement one’s diet and are not considered food.

Here’s how you know a good doctor: A good doctor is one who asks a lot of questions and then listens to the answers the patient provides. A good doctor doesn’t make a recommendation or prescription before knowing the patient inside and out. A good doctor doesn’t have a one-size-fits -all solution for what ails the patient. The same logic holds true with those of us who are in fitness and wellness. We should be seeking to understand what our clients need, not sell them something we want them to have.

Doctors take a Hippocratic oath when they become physicians. They swear to practice medical honesty. They swear to keep their patients from “harm and injustice.” The same should hold true in the world of fitness and wellness. Like doctors, those of us in health and wellness should adhere to our own Hippocratic oath of sorts. That is, we should aim to practice honesty no matter how it affects the success of our livelihoods or otherwise. There is only one reason to be in health, wellness, medicine, or fitness – to help people. If your primary goal and focus in fitness and wellness is to make money, shame on you. Go be a stockbroker.

I’ve been in fitness for a long time now and have seen many trends come and go but none as prevalent as that of the current multi-level marketing product craze. It seems that every gym and every Jack and Jill on Facebook are hocking something that claims to add beauty, fitness benefits, weight loss, and a cure for obesity. Sounds eerily like the snake oil salesmen days to me – the answer in a bottle. We all know deep down these claims are false, irresponsible, and self-serving. We want to believe though, both those who sell and those who buy. We want to believe because we will do almost anything to avoid being uncomfortable and face hard truths.

That is why people who sell multi-level marketing products talk a lot more than those who are their customers. If they talk and dance fast enough perhaps they can convince you otherwise of what you already know deep down is a lie – that you can have your cake (or diet cheese puffs) and eat it too, or that you can enjoy that brownie-flavored energy bar and it will help you get and stay thin. You want so desperately to have the body you’ve always wanted and to find something that tastes as good as the food you’re addicted to.

Lucky for you, there are plenty of people who are happy to sell you that bill of goods and with good reason – there’s plenty of money in it for them. It’s profitable to give customers what they want and tell them things they like to hear. Unfortunately, in fields like medicine, fitness, and wellness, doing so is also often an injustice. We all know the truth about diets of all kinds. They only work in the short term. Period.

multi-level marketing, supplements, cults, fitness business, fitness industryIn selling his multi-level marketing diet product, my former co-worker used to tell me that he was helping to “solve the obesity epidemic.” To which I simply smiled and listened as politely as possible. You know what solves the obesity epidemic? Telling people the truth. Telling people they need to face why they are addicted to processed and toxic food or asking them to face why it is they don’t want to get uncomfortable with rigorous daily exercise. I had the same awkward smile-and-nod conversation recently with a multi-level marketing rep who went on an on about the benefits of her magic veggie and fruit pills. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why not simply tell people to eat more real fruits and vegetables, but of course we all know there’s no money in telling people that.

Again, telling people this truth is often not profitable. It is much more profitable to tell people what they want to hear, which is that there is a fun and easy way to do exercise, and that there is a version of packaged food that is good for you. To which I say bullshit.

If we look at the definition of dietary supplement we notice that these supplements are “not considered food. That also goes for the diet products our country consumes en masse. The fact is we are addicted to toxic and processed food, much of which isn’t even food in the first place. Many of the foods we eat are derivatives of food mixed with chemicals we cannot pronounce, and they come to us in boxes that have shelf lives of months. Solving the obesity epidemic with ‘healthy’ processed food and ‘healthy’ chemicals (that make it taste good) seems downright laughable to me.

The reality is food doesn’t have a shelf life. As Michael Pollan says in his book Food Rules, don’t buy anything that is sold at a gas station. Yet another hard truth is that when you switch to eating real food it probably won’t taste as good to you either, at least initially. The veggie and fruit pill lady is right; we do need to eat more apples and broccoli, just not the kinds that come bottled up in her easy-to-swallow pill form. We need less stuff from a box or a pill – a lot less. That is the truth we need to be spreading. It’s not a voice we hear often, save from food pioneers like Michael Pollan and occasional television celebrities like Jamie Oliver. These individuals are the exceptions, and their voices are often drowned out by the much more popular diet du jour, whatever that happens to be.

multi-level marketing, supplements, cults, fitness business, fitness industryHere’s the telltale sign of someone trying to sell you supplements or someone who is a multi-level marketing professional – they talk at you and ask you nebulous open-ended questions, like “Would you like to be more healthy?” or “Would you like to make more money?” I had a couple come up to me at the gym the other day asking my opinion on supplements and which ones I take and recommend. I started in on the potential benefits of a multivitamin and protein supplementation and then this couple launched into their pitch of a product they rep. I thought they were asking a genuine question, but it really was just a set up for them to go right into their pitch. They weren’t interested in what I had to say. They were waiting for the opportunity to give their elevator pitch. Put succinctly – regardless of ones profession, if someone talks a lot more than they listen, odds are they are thinking about their needs and not yours.

Like the turn of the century snake oil salesmen, multi-level marketing professionals hide behind the curtain of saving lives and healing people. The reality is many in the fitness industry are preying on the weak people – the obese, those in poor health, and those lacking self worth after putting on a few pounds. At least the sharks on Wall Street don’t hide the fact they’re in it for the money. Whereas those who sell diet dreams to the overweight and dissatisfied do so under the guise of providing a cure. And it doesn’t stop with the disadvantaged. Supposedly, these diets and supplements can help anyone. “Want to lose a few pounds, get ripped? Here’s how.”

Remember when your dad used to say, “If it sounds too good to be true…” Yes, it’s kinda like that. That’s how you really know they are full of it – they’ll sell their product to anyone.

It’s about the Benjamins.

You would hope that a person enters medicine for the right reasons, as lives are literally at stake. Unfortunately with the allure of big money and the ego involved with becoming a doctor or medical practitioner, some can be drawn into the medical field for the wrong reasons. The same thing happens in fitness. Many are drawn in because they think being a trainer, coach, or proprietor might be fun or cool.

Even if we’re in it for altruistic reasons, many in fitness quickly discover that it isn’t an easy field in which to make a decent living. This is the cause of the multi-level marketing craze in our industry – greed, and specifically greed in response to coming from a position of lack or want. The challenge is that many in fitness barely make a living wage. The majority in health and wellness live paycheck to paycheck and lots of us have white-collar pedigrees but make blue-collar (or below) wages. The desire to make extra money and work less can be very appealing and tempting. Not only that, you have a built-in support network of fellow marketers. Well, I suppose one could call this support, but then again it matters where you sit in the proverbial pyramid. I’m guessing it pays to be at the top, complete with sunny resort getaways and fancy seminars in swanky hotels.

multi-level marketing, supplements, cults, fitness business, fitness industryWell, I have some choice words for those of you who signed up for a career in health and wellness. Tough. No one promised us that we would get to make lots of money in fitness. Like I said, you want to make money, go be a stockbroker. We show up to the gym, the studio, and the dojo to help people and make people healthier. The money may or may not follow. You’ve got to know that going in. It’s like being an artist – you do it for the love of the art.

We in the health and fitness business are on the front lines of a pandemic in health and wellness. Obesity and the correlated health issues such as diabetes are continuing to skyrocket out of control. Clearly the rapid and robust growth of the supplement industry and multi-level marketing have solved nothing except make those who sell these goods richer. It’s up to each and every one of us in our industry to act accordingly and responsibly.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock, except snake oil ad [public domain].

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