Any device that promises fast fat loss without surgery sounds like something that falls into the same category as diet pills, cellulite creams, and electric abs belts—quick fixes that rarely (if ever) live up to their big claims. Yet Dan Blustin, 44, the general manager of a LifeTime Fitness gym, can't say enough good things about Zerona, aka "laser lipo," a laser fat-removal procedure. "It changed my life," he says simply.
"There I was, running a gym and 30 pounds overweight. I felt like a hypocrite every day. As a former bodybuilder and MMA fighter, I knew what I had to do to get in shape, but because of my age it just wasn't working like it used to," he says. Anxious to get a little help, he decided to try Zerona, which promises to blast off stubborn fat cells and sculpt a smaller, firmer body. (Hey, we already know lasers can do wonders for your skin.) In addition to the thrice-weekly laser treatments that last about 30 minutes, Dan says he was instructed to eat a low-carb diet, drink lots of extra water, and keep to his regular exercise routine. Initially, he was skeptical. But as he started to see results, he became a believer, he says.
Who Can Try Laser Lipo
The ideal candidate for laser fat removal is someone already committed to making healthy lifestyle changes and who doesn't have a lot of weight to lose but is more concerned about problem areas, particularly in the hips, waist, and thighs, says Peter LePort, M.D., a bariatric surgeon and medical director of MemorialCare Center for Obesity in California, who uses fat sculpting laser in his practice. "This is not useful for people who are obese or looking to lose a lot of weight, but it works great for tweaking individual body parts after losing weight or having plastic surgery," he says.
You also need to have enough time in your schedule to commit to multiple sessions each week for several weeks. The Zerona website recommends not going more than 72 hours between treatments for best results.
Laser fat-removal therapies are not recommended for women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, or for people who have pacemakers. The laser also won't address any underlying metabolic, hormonal, or other physical issues that may have caused the weight gain, so you should see your doctor first, Dr. LePort cautions. (Decided lasers aren't for you? Try this ultimate legs, butt, and thighs workout for losing cellulite.)
How Laser Fat Removal Works
Laser lipo offers a noninvasive treatment for fat, targeting fat cells while sparing other tissues in the body. The Zerona works by aiming lasers specifically designed to puncture holes in your fat cells at your lower body. The company says their lasers slowly perforate the cells so that they deflate. (Don't worry, it's completely painless.) Your body keeps all the fat cells—a good thing since removing fat cells can have unintended consequences like the fat reappearing in other places, as seen in recent studies on liposuction—but they're just much smaller. The fat is then released into your interstitial fluid and flushed out by your lymphatic system. Because we store our toxins in our fat, this also has a cleansing effect on the body, says Lisa Bloch, director of the LifeTime Fitness Medi-spa and the one who did Dan's treatments.
What It Feels Like
You start by undressing your lower half, leaving your underwear on if you wish. You then lie on the table and the technician adjusts the octopus-like arms to aim the lasers at the specific spots you're trying to shrink. And that's it! You lie there while the lasers work their magic, with most sessions lasting between 20 and 40 minutes. Because the Zerona is a "cold" laser, patients don't feel a thing, Bloch explains. There is no pain, swelling, tenderness, or redness, so there is also no downtime. Unlike more invasive fat-removal treatments, you can immediately go back to work, exercising or whatever else your day holds.
Afterward, however, you may feel something. Because the laser is causing your fat cells to release their contents into your bloodstream, you may feel a little tired, woozy, or sick afterward, particularly if you're not drinking enough water. "The water is key to flushing the fat and toxins out of your system," she adds. (Water is good for literally everything.)
Laser Lipo Doesn't Work Alone
"This is definitely not a miracle cure," says Bloch. "This is complementary medicine, not a cure-all. It's designed to make your healthy eating and exercise more effective, especially if you're at a point where you've plateaued. You still have to do the work; it just enhances your results." She recommends that her laser fat-removal clients eat a very clean diet, work out moderately, wear compression undergarments, and drink water as if peeing were an Olympic sport. (Also try these plateau-busting strategies so you can start seeing results.)
A Surprising Perk of Laser Liposuction
Dan says that in addition to losing weight, he also experienced an unexpected side effect: crazy energy! "I felt rejuvenated like after a good massage and I could get more done in the day," he says. He adds that the laser also provided extra motivation to stick to his healthy living goals as he didn't want to undo any hard-won progress.
So, Does Laser Lipo Work?
Research on using laser therapies for weight loss is relatively rare and what does exist is often funded by the laser companies themselves, perhaps making it biased. However, an independent 2013 study of over 2,000 subjects found that using laser lipolysis (a different therapy than the Zerona) slightly decreased fat and increased collagen production, making skin look both tighter and younger. The researchers noted that laser fat removal worked best in conjunction with standard liposuction rather than when used alone.
A small clinical trial of the Zerona laser, sponsored by the manufacturer, found that patients lost an average of an inch off their waist and hips and an additional two centimeters from each leg. However, most of the patients regained at least some of the inches just two weeks after stopping the treatment. The FDA had enough faith in the treatment to approve it for general use in the U.S.
Dan is definitely a happy customer. "In just two months of Zerona treatments I've dropped 35 pounds, 8 inches off my waist, and 10 percent body fat!" he says. Dr. LePort agrees that patients can see impressive results, saying that it's very successful when it comes to fat sculpting and body reshaping. (You know what else does that? Strength training.)
Your Mileage May Vary
Back when I first reported on laser weight loss, I tried the Zerona myself and was cautiously optimistic. I didn't lose much — just 1/2 inch off each thigh — but I did feel a little firmer and sleeker. In the several years since then, however, I've gained that back and more despite my weight remaining relatively constant and my continuing to exercise. Worse, the shape of my thighs has changed, with more fat deposits in the exact areas the Zerona targeted. It may just be a side effect of getting older (sigh) but part of me wonders if the laser lipo treatment hurt more than it helped. Either way, I wouldn't do it again.