By Gina DeMillo Wagner
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 68 percent of Americans are overweight and more than one-third are considered obese. Millions of people are trying to lose weight—and most wish it were as simple as popping a pill. “The multibillion-dollar dietary and weight-loss supplement industries are thriving because people always want that magic bullet that causes them to shed fat,” says Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, a nutritional biochemist and author of The Health Professional’s Guide to Dietary Supplements (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2006).
While many supplements can give you a leg up on weight control, the reality is that to lose weight and keep it off, you have to eat healthily and exercise regularly. “No supplement can make up for poor lifestyle choices,” Talbott says. In addition to diet and exercise, reducing stress, getting plenty of sleep, and staying hydrated are all proven weight-loss boosters. But if you’re already practicing healthy lifestyle habits, adopting a specific supplement regimen can help speed weight loss, says Talbott—that is, if you choose the right supplements and use them safely. We worked with a team of experts to develop the following guide to the best and worst weight-loss supplements on the market today, with tips on efficacy, dosing, and how best to fit them into your slimming regimen.
What are diet supplements anyway?
Weight-loss supplements comprise a broad category of pills, powders, herbs, drinks, and tinctures that purport to aid nutrition and help people drop pounds. While there are hundreds of supplements on the market today, there are actually fewer “magical cures” than there were just a few years ago. In the wake of recalls and controversies, such as those surrounding ephedra and the herbal formula Hydroxycut, manufacturers are toning down claims and developing a wider variety of natural, nonchemical supplements, according to Nutrition Business Journal, which tracks sales and trends for the natural products industry.
A dose of caution
While better than synthetic, “natural” does not always mean “safe” when it comes to dietary supplements, says William Dunn, MD, oncologist and founder of LightenForLife.com, a program that advocates healthy weight loss for disease prevention. “The FDA does not regulate many dietary supplements until too many cases of illness or death become associated with it, such as with Hydroxycut,” Dunn says. That’s why it’s important to be well informed when purchasing supplements. Some products are studied extensively and proven to be beneficial, while others make big promises without any supporting science.
“Anything that claims to cause weight loss of more than 2 pounds per week is suspicious,” adds Eric Plasker, DC, author of The 100 Year Lifestyle (Adams Media, 2007). “Also, I tell my patients to be wary of products that claim to boost your metabolism.” Those products may actually work, he says, but the problem comes when you stop taking them. “Your metabolism rate falls, and you quickly put the weight back on, and then some. It’s not a long-term solution,” he says.
In addition, not all supplements function the same for every individual. “Sometimes it’s a matter of trial and error because some supplements work for certain body types and eating issues better than others,” Talbott says. In other words, a supplement that did wonders for your friend’s stress-related weight gain may not work equally well if you need to drop pregnancy pounds. When in doubt, talk with your healthcare practitioner about specific concerns.
Finally, no matter which supplement you try, keep your expectations realistic. “Even in controlled studies in which we monitor diet and exercise parameters, subjects want the supplements to work quickly,” Talbott says. “They often become discouraged when they have not lost a significant amount of weight within a week or two. But we do see subjects lose weight after about eight to 12 weeks of combining supplements with healthy lifestyle choices, like diet and exercise.”
Best and Worst Weight-loss supplements
White and green teas
The sell: Coupled with healthy diet and exercise, white and green teas or tea extracts containing the antioxidant epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) are believed to aid weight loss by reducing the manufacture of new fat cells and helping break down fat in existing cells.
The facts: Most experts agree that white and green teas are safe and beneficial additions to any diet, as long as you don’t consume too much caffeine overall (healthy adults with no preexisting health conditions should not exceed 400 mg of caffeine daily). In one study, obese people who exercised and drank green tea lost a moderate amount of weight over time, Dunn says, while recent research published in Nutrition & Metabolism found that white tea extract inhibits the generation of new fat cells and can help shed existing fat. Experts say that drinking 2 cups of well-steeped tea per day is enough to enhance weight-loss efforts. Follow bottle dosing instructions if supplementing with EGCG.
The sell: This acid, which occurs naturally in the body as a by-product of digestion, is sold in tablet and powder forms and may help boost metabolism and suppress appetite. Also known as pyruvate, pyruvic acid is found in some foods, including red apples, cheese, and red wine.
The facts: Experts are cautiously optimistic about this one. Research published in the May 1999 issue of Nutrition shows that low dosages of pyruvate (6 grams per day) can accelerate fat loss when combined with regular exercise. Our experts say they’d like to see more studies on how pyruvate boosts metabolism and decreases appetite. In the meantime, though, they acknowledge that the supplement is safe in low doses (under 20 grams per day) and appears to support healthy weight loss when used in combination with diet and exercise.
The sell: High doses of herbal diuretics, such as chicory and dandelion, are believed to promote quick weight loss by allowing you to rid the body of excess water.
The facts: While it’s true that diuretics, which decrease water retention and clear excess liquid stored in cells, may help you shed some pounds, purging extra water is neither a healthy nor effective weight-loss strategy, say Dunn and Plasker. Losing weight by losing water doesn’t mean you’re losing fat, and even if you’re just looking for a smaller number on the scale, herbal diuretics often don’t provide enough cell-water reduction to do the trick. On the contrary, staying hydrated helps you lose weight, so aim to drink half an ounce of water daily for every pound of your current body weight. “Water detoxifies us,” Dunn says. “It helps deliver nutrients to our cells and aids in increasing metabolism. Foods with higher water content decrease appetite and help us avoid diabetes and cancer.” What’s more, although most herbal diuretics are nontoxic, some have been shown to interact adversely with prescription medications, such as Lithobid and Eskalith (lithium).
The sell: This blend of citrus peel PMFs—or polymethoxylated flavones, a type of high-potency flavonoid—and Eurycoma longifolia, an herb grown in Southeast Asia, is thought to counteract the release of stress hormones and stabilize blood sugar to help you lose weight.
The facts: Talbott and his research team believe a combination of eurycoma and citrus peel extracts can lead to weight loss, adding that the supplement blend may help lift mood and energy levels, too. Eleviv showed a 91 percent success rate in helping self-described “stress eaters” adhere to a moderate weight-loss regimen and achieve significant belly-fat loss after they supplemented with the product as recommended for six to 12 weeks. Although there are a lot of citrus-based supplements, Eleviv appears to be the most effective because it synergistically balances stress hormones. For dosing information, follow instructions on the bottle.
The sell: Hoodia gordonii, derived from a cactus-like plant native to Africa, has been touted to decrease appetite and help people consume up to 2,000 fewer calories a day.
The facts: Experts acknowledge anecdotal evidence that hoodia can indeed trick your brain into making you feel full. One study published in Brain Research reported that a molecule in hoodia helped regulate appetite in rats, but that’s not enough to satisfy most experts, and published, scientific studies suggesting hoodia has any long-term benefits are sparse, Dunn says. What’s more, the Federal Trade Commission warns that many products labeled with “hoodia,” such as “hoodia slimming teas,” don’t actually contain real Hoodia gordonii, rendering them ineffective.
The sell: These nondigestible fibers serve as a food source for probiotics (good bacteria) in the gut. Prebiotics are available in supplement form and occur naturally in foods such as cottage cheese and Jerusalem artichoke, as well as raw chicory root, garlic, and leeks. Manufacturers say these supplements can suppress hunger and lead to weight loss.
The facts: A June 2009 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that daily consumption of prebiotic oligofructose, a type of prebiotic fiber, may lead to weight loss by suppressing levels of the hormones linked to hunger. Overweight and obese adults supplementing with 21 grams of oligofructose daily lost an average of more than 2 pounds in 12 weeks, compared to a general weight increase in the placebo group. Other studies show that prebiotic fiber supplements can help maintain a healthy body weight and body mass index. Prebiotics, even in doses as small as 4 grams a day, also aid digestion and can boost immunity, according to researchers at the University of Toronto.
The sell: A staple of Chinese medicine for thousands of years, ginseng is believed to help stabilize metabolism, inhibit fat storage in the body, and lower blood-glucose levels, which can help prevent type 2 diabetes.
The facts: A 2009 article in the World Journal of Gastroenterology reviewed 77 studies on herbal weight-loss supplements and concluded that ginseng consistently supports safe, effective weight loss when combined with diet and exercise. Doses vary by study, but most practitioners recommend 100 to 200 mg of a standardized ginseng extract (with 4 percent ginsenosides) once or twice daily for up to 12 weeks. The Mayo Clinic cautions against taking more than 1 gram of dry ginseng root daily: High doses have been associated with side effects such as headaches, changes in blood pressure, and insomnia.
Chromium, manganese, and magnesium
The sell: These minerals, when taken together, may reduce cravings for sugar and simple carbohydrates, helping you shed pounds.
The facts: “Addiction to simple carbs is what roadblocks most dieters,” says Marnie Dominy, a health scientist and author of Choosing Your Healthy Path: A 24-Week Inspirational Guide to Weight Loss and Wellness (BCH, 2009). “A supplement with these three minerals is absolutely essential to combating the carb pitfalls.” According to studies, chromium may help control cholesterol and blood-lipid levels; manganese regulates blood sugar; and magnesium can relax muscles and maintain healthy blood pressure. Chromium, manganese, and magnesium work better when taken in combination than individually, and you can buy all three in a formula—see bottle for specific dosing instructions. It’s also possible to get enough of the nutrients if you eat several servings daily of spinach, cereal, whole soybeans, broccoli, legumes, or pumpkinseeds.