Meg Farris / Medical Reporter
You've seen the commercials on TV - sprinkle some crystals on everything you eat and you'll automatically not want to overeat.
Celebrities say it works and so does a local woman who has lost weight. But what is the truth behind the hype?
Toya Townsend, 44, was working late one night on a Journey to Health issue of 'Breakthru Media' magazine, at her home in Harvey, and that's when a TV infomercial came on.
"It's not a diet. It's not a pill and it's as easy to use as salt and pepper. Just sprinkle Sensa on all of your favorite foods and watch the pounds come off," said the announcer.
"This used to be a size 48," said one dieter about his pants size.
"I have lost 53 pounds," said another in the infomercial.
"I lost 38 pounds with Sensa," said still another dieter showing before and after pictures in the paid commercial.
There were promises: No food restrictions, no packaged meals, and no counting calories. There were even celebrity endorsements.
"This is the best kept Hollywood secret. Sensa. When I found Sensa, I could eat whatever I want, not think about the calories and just sprinkle and go," said the Millionaire Matchmaker Patti Stanger on the infomercial.
Townsend was intrigued.
"And I was like, ‘hmm, do I really want to try this, because I hardly ever do anything on television on a whim?’ So I'm like, 'We're going to do this Journey to Health (issue of the magazine). I'm going to get myself healthy,' " said Townsend.
The product is called Sensa. It is fine white sprinkles that are virtually tasteless and odorless. You shake it on your food before you eat it. There's one for salty foods and another for sweet foods. Each month you use a different shaker. At the end of six months, you go back to month one. In the infomercial the doctor who created the product says diets set you up for failure, but he's tackling weight loss from a whole new approach.
"I found that hunger isn't controlled by your stomach, it's controlled by your brain. We don't overeat just because we're hungry, it's because we love to eat and diets don't stop you from wanting to eat. They just stop you from eating what you want and that's a recipe for failure," states Dr. Alan Hirsch in the infomercial.
He says by sprinkling his Sensa product on your food before you eat, it tricks your brain. The hormones that signal fullness are stimulated faster, making you satisfied with eating a smaller portion of your regular meal.
After 25 years of research I finally figured out why diets don't work. Most diets focus on what you eat. They have it all wrong. Sensa looks at why you overeat and the biological mechanism that prevent you from overeating," Dr. Hirsch continues in the infomercial.
Toya says that is exactly what is happening to her. With no formal exercise, just the physical routine of delivering her magazine, in two months on Sensa she is down 12 pounds.
"Our New Orleans food is wonderful but it's to the point where I feel full. There's just something about it that as you eat you don't eat all of the meal, so I'll just eat half of my meal," Townsend explained.
And before Sensa she ate it all.
"Oh heck yes, I ate all that food," she laughs. "It was wonderful. I mean, down in New Orleans that's what we do, we eat."
While the fine print in the infomercial states Sensa users should have a sensible diet and exercise program, and that claims have not been evaluated by the FDA, Dr. Hirsch says he has study results. The Sensa group lost 30.5 pounds while those not on Sensa in the study lost only two pounds on average.
Independent doctors say yes it's plausible that it would work, but still they want to see more proof in the form of studies scrutinized by other scientists and medical journals.
"So the message here is, this product is a little bit too early for us to say with authority that it is effective. It's definitely safe. There's few side effects," explained Dr. Melinda Sothern, a clinical exercise physiologist and professor in the School of Public Health at LSU Health Sciences Center.
"I just would want to see really good quality, peer reviewed research. Show that to me I'll believe it in a heartbeat. I really will. What he (Dr. Hirsch) has now is an initial fairly good little pilot study and then this, again, allegedly double blinded control trial and if is that effective that trial should have been submitted to the New England Journal of Medicine a long time ago," said Dr. Timothy Harlan, a Clinical General Internist at Tulane and former chef who runs www.drgourmet.com.
Doctors say people in Dr. Hirsch's study did not get consistent results.
"When you actually look at the results, the results are very across the board, where some people had absolutely no response to the crystals and others had a huge response. So my thoughts are if you are considering using this, the response is going to be very individual. You may get a great response and you may get no response," added Dr. Sothern.
Mackie Shilstone says the product is very popular now but thinks there's a more natural way to signal your brain when you're full.
"Take 20 minutes to eat. You might find you get the same effect," said Mackie Shilstone, the Executive Director of the Fitness Principle at East Jefferson General Hospital.
The doctors say there was another study on a similar product that did show a change in weight and the hormones that make you feel full.
But for now, while the scientific jury is out, for Townsend, whether it's the power of suggestion or real hormone and brain chemistry changes, she's not stopping.
"I mean it's just simple. I mean you just have your meal and you just sprinkle on everything. Then, all of a sudden, I started seeing the weight fall off. I'm like, 'You must be crazy,' " exclaimed Townsend.
Since Weight Loss Wednesday interviewed Townsend, she has lost 10 more pounds, bringing her weight loss to 22 pounds.