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Do weight-loss supplements work?

We’ve seen ads about products claiming to help us burn fat and shed pounds. Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, a “Today” contributor, gives the skinny on them
/ Source: TODAY

Can weight-loss supplements help you shed pounds while you sleep? Let eat your favorite foods without gaining an ounce? Or turn your body into a fat-burning machine? And can a lip gloss make shedding those extra pounds more appealing? We’ve all seen ads for diet products that make these outrageous claims. Many Americans who are struggling to lose weight buy these non-prescription diet products. According to government reports, this is a billion dollar business.

The lifestyle modifications are the foundation of any successful long-term weight-loss plan (eating less and moving more), but for many dieters that can be difficult, since it requires daily focus and discipline. So it’s not surprising that many Americans want some help. My patients are always asking me about these weight-loss products, so I wanted to provide a reality check on this ever-expanding business. While the answers are not black and white, it all comes down to two questions: “Are they safe?” and “Do they work?” Here’s the skinny on products with unsubstantiated weight-loss claims.

What are the problems?The market is jammed with products promising quick and effortless weight loss. Perhaps surprisingly, most consumers are not more cautious about taking these products. Recent studies show that two thirds of Americans think that the government requires warnings about the side effects of these products and about half believe that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved these products’ safety and efficacy. Both are not true.

Advertising of these products is often misleading. At best, you simply waste your money. At worst, the products can be unsafe and damage your health. Separating the safe and effective products from the harmful and wasteful ones, though, is confusing. On top of this, there are a variety of creams, lotions, lipsticks, soaps, and even pants on the market that will supposedly help you lose weight.

You might be surprised by all of this. How can the government allow the public to be exposed to these kinds of products? It’s the result of what’s called the DSHEA Act (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act), approved by the U.S. Congress in 1994. The act allows any product of plant origin to be sold to the public as a dietary supplement without approval from the FDA or other government agencies.

What are the risks?It’s not surprising in nature to have compounds that sedate, stimulate, or even suppress hunger. These food derivatives include everything from the well-known and abundantly tested caffeine to products like ephedra (which is now off the market) to lesser known ones like bitter orange, guarana, and hoodia.

If ingested in their natural state, these compounds are limited in dose and pure. But they can be problematic when you extract them and put them in a pill, or a capsule, in a concentrated form. In addition, untested (or unknown) contaminants that are health damaging can be included in the compounds during the manufacturing process.

These products can also pose a particular risk for people taking prescription medications. Compounds such as bitter orange, which is a stimulant, do have biological activity in available preparations and can interfere with prescription drugs. So, be sure to check with your doctor before even thinking about using a product for weight loss.

Are there any benefits?
Many of these compounds also encourage users to reduce their calories and exercise more for the best results. This advice, however, is usually in fine print in the ad. Of course, most people can benefit from both of these lifestyle changes. Also, the placebo effect of these products can be quite strong, which is OK. This can help some people stay focused on their lifestyle modifications. You must balance these benefits with the realistic risks associated with these products. In the end, it’s not usually worth the risk. Compounds found in topical applications, don’t usually pose any health concerns. But common sense dictates that products like weight loss soap, creams, and lip glosses will do little, if anything, to help you lose weight in the absence of cutting calories. Potential health risks here are enormously reduced, but you could end up wasting a lot of money on these products.

Dr. Fernstrom’s Bottom Line: The unproven claims of products that tout quick weight loss may be unethical, but they are not illegal. These products are usually a bad idea either for your health, wallet — or both. But if you insist on taking them, at the very least, make sure the manufacturer provides an 800 consumer phone number you can call to ask questions about the product’s documented safety and purity. If you’re on prescription medications, check with your doctor before taking these products to avoid harmful interactions. Most of all, remember, when it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D., CNS,is the founder and director of the An associate professor of psychiatry, epidemiology, and surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Fernstrom is also a board-certified nutrition specialist from theAmerican College of Nutrition.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician.