Forget Liposuction: I Tried Fat-Melting Technologies

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Photo: bluecinema/Getty Images

Recently, Britney Spears was spotted leaving a medical building intently reading a brochure for Zerona, one of the many noninvasive so-called “fat-melting” treatments now available. Liposuction, a procedure so conceptually horrifying to me that I have to close my eyes every time I see it on an episode of Botched, is the gold standard for getting rid of unwanted fat deposits. It obviously comes with some down sides: expense, potential for weird lumps afterward, and loose skin, not to mention the sucking. Oh, and sometimes people die from complications associated with it. So over the last few years, companies have introduced different technologies for use in doctors’ offices and medi-spas that offer fat burning (literally) without the pain, downtime, and ick factor of liposuction. There is, however, still the cost. And the time.

There are several different types of treatments, but they all generally work the same way. A concentrated energy source — laser (Zerona, LiLa), ultrasound (Liposonix, UltraShape), radio waves (Vanquish, TruSculpt), or extreme cold (CoolSculpting) — gets aimed at fat cells, which causes the fat’s cell membranes to be punctured or destroyed, leaking the contents out and essentially killing the fat cell. They differ in method of delivery, side effects, pain, cost, and results, but all of these procedures are meant for people who have stubborn areas or pockets of fat (think love handles), not for those who need overall weight loss.

I tried two of the newer therapies to see if they could get rid of a belly pooch and some outer-thigh saddle baggage I’ve been carrying around. A note on these therapies: You cannot be afraid of looking foolish, nor be squeamish about people grabbing large hunks of your flab, photographing your naked thighs, or measuring your body parts like you’re about to compete in the Westminster Kennel Show.

Laser: I tried a newer version of laser therapy, called the LiLa Strawberry Laser, which was just approved by the FDA last November and has been used widely in other countries for the last three years. According to LiLa’s CEO, Tony Ullo, the laser is beamed through your skin to a depth of 9 milliimeters to 13 millimeters, which is the distance where your superficial fat cells are lolling around. Your skin remains unharmed in the process. The laser pokes holes in the fat cells, as described above. The fluid from the cells then drains into your lymphatic system.

I went to a midtown medi-spa for the treatment. For optimal results, you need to get two treatments twice a week (a treatment costs $250) for a total of eight treatments, though Ullo promised I’d see results and girth loss right away. When I stripped down, the aesthetician said, “Ooh, your thighs are good for this!” Then she took photos of my thighs from all angles, which I made the mistake of looking at afterward. Do not look at your before pictures. Then she took four measurements of my legs, one of which was bigger than Scarlett O’Hara’s pre-baby waist measurement. I couldn’t wait to get on the table after that.

The tech strapped on what looked like a giant blood-pressure cuff on each leg. Each cuff contained four iPhone-size boxes that shoot the laser into the treated area for ten minutes. After ten minutes, she rotated the cuff to ensure that the entire leg was treated. The treatment wasn’t uncomfortable at all, and the heat generated was completely tolerable. The only disconcerting thing? The machine to which the cuffs were attached featured a prominent picture of a strawberry plunging into a pool of cream, bringing to mind a giant tub of Greek yogurt.

After the treatment, I had to stand on a vibrating plate machine for ten minutes while holding a squat position, which supposedly “treats your involuntary muscles, the ones you have no control over,” according to Ullo. After the cell-shaking, the tech took measurements again — and I gained girth. Measuring body fat is inherently tricky, so they told me to come back in a few days for another treatment, and I left with an admonition to exercise for the next two days so the circulating fatty acids wouldn't get reabsorbed. I returned for a second treatment, and this time recorded eighth- to quarter-inch losses on all the various measurements. My favorite cutoff jean shorts are definitely a little looser, so I’m sure eight treatments would have shown some significant improvement. Before and after pictures of patients are impressive; however, you need to maintain a healthy lifestyle afterward or the fat will come back.

Ultrasound: NYC dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross (maker of the cult-favorite Alpha Beta Peel pads) is pretty damn excited about his new machine, which made me excited to try it. UltraShape, a machine that employs ultrasound waves to kill fat cells, has been used successfully for years in Canada and just received FDA approval here in the U.S. “I waited and I never jumped on the bandwagon with the other technologies because I knew how [UltraShape] was performing internationally,” he says. 

Three treatments ($1,200 each) 10 to 14 days apart are recommended. You need to be able to “pinch at least an inch” to be a candidate for treatment, so Dr. Gross manhandled my midsection to get a sense of how much he could pinch. He pronounced me to be “not a great” candidate, but he said he would do it.

Courtney, Dr. Gross’s medical aesthetician, set me up for the procedure by first taking abdominal measurements, weight, and BMI. Then, while I lay flat on a table, she gathered up as much of my pinch-able abdominal fat as possible and formed it into a rectangular shape, sort of resembling a meat loaf. She taped around the rectangle, which became the treatment area, then applied gooey gel on top of the whole thing. The treatment, which involved moving a warm hand piece all over the tummy rectangle, lasted fewer than ten minutes. There were a couple of moments where it got really hot, but I didn’t have any marks and the feeling went away. The worst part of it all was pulling the tape off. (Beauty hack alert: Courtney used dish soap to loosen the adhesive.) I was then told the same thing the LiLa people told me: exercise and eat healthily for the next few days. I could expect to see results seven to ten days afterward.

I measured myself at home before and ten days after the treatment, and I can report a three-quarter-inch decrease. Most important, my stomach feels flatter. Do you know that blissful early morning flat-belly feeling? That’s what I feel like all day now — there’s definitely less protrusion.

So, Britney, my final verdict on fat melting: It won’t necessarily give you those “Baby One More Time” abs back again, but it’s good for tweaking — if you can afford it.