According to research conducted by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, 66 percent of Americans are overweight, and we're on track to see that figure reach 75 percent by 2015. In the midst of this troubling epidemic, diet pills have rushed to the marketplace-some promising fairly reasonable results, others claiming they can create bathing-suit bodies in weeks or even days. How can you navigate through this sea of hype? It's easy if you keep a few things in mind:

1. Follow the asterick. If a product makes a far-fetched boast, it's often accompanied by fine print that gives you a somewhat more truthful assessment of what you can reasonably expect. These disclaimers have become a necessity: Recently, marketers of four weight-loss pills--Xenadrine EFX, One-A-Day Weight Smart, CortiSlim, and TrimSpa-were fined $25 million by the Federal Trade Commission for making false claims. Regardless, most experts agree that you should plan to lose about two pounds a week; any product professing to help you lose more than that should be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism.

2. Use the Internet to your advantage. While the Web can bombard you with all sorts of misleading information on these products, it can be an importance source of knowledge if you know what to look for. First find out the active ingredients in the product, then check if there's any credible research to substantiate the ingredients' efficacy. The National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health provide a database called MedLine Plus, which offers the latest information on over-the-counter medicines, herbs, and supplements. As it stands now, Alli (active ingredient: orlistat) is the only product with enough favorable research to earn the FDA's approval. Unilever, in conjunction with Phytopharm, is working on a product containing hoodia extract and has reported some promising results. A cactus-like plant used by bushmen of the Kalahari as an appetite suppressant, hoodia got some good press a few years back when Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes traveled to South Africa to try it out, but the medical community is still wary, and some critics point out that when you deprive your body of food, it starts to store any calories it gets as fat.

3. Consult a healthcare professional . Whether you seek the advice of your primary care physician or a nutritionist, you should obtain some form of medical guidance before you embark on any weight-loss program, especially if you hope to shed substantial pounds. A doctor can also help you design a complementary exercise and meal plan. A Brazilian university study published in the International Journal of Obesity concluded that a regimen embracing both diet and exercise results in 20 percent greater initial weight loss and 20 percent greater sustained weight loss after a year than does a plan focusing on diet alone.