Wise Weight Loss

Are the new supplements worthy of the hype?

| January/February 2006

We North Americans are not as svelte as we once were. With two-thirds of the U.S. adult population overweight, and one-third obese, weight control is now an obsession. And the dietary supplement industry has risen to the occasion, with more than 50 individual supplements and 125 proprietary products proffered for weight loss, the majority of which have yet to receive rigorous clinical testing. In fact, some products may be relieving us of more dollars than pounds.

Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) served notice to nine supplement manufacturers. Products promising weight loss of several pounds a week without dieting and exercise, or those claiming to reduce fat absorption or to trim fat on certain parts of the body, now have to prove those claims. That has tapped the brakes on this $2 billion-plus industry, and it prompts the question: What really does work for weight loss?

Supplements may help to curb appetite or stimulate the body to burn energy, reduce fat, restrain carbohydrates or expel water. Here’s what we know about some of the popular ones.

Appetite Suppressors: Questionable Effects on Weight Loss

Most appetite suppressors are soluble fiber foods such as glucomannan, psyllium and guar gum, which help us to feel full. Preliminary studies indicate only glucomannan, a polysaccharide from the plant Amorphophallus konjac, may trigger modest weight loss at dosages of 3 to 4 grams per day, but larger trials are needed.

Psyllium from seed husks of Plantago psyllium, and guar gum, a fiber derived from Cyamopsis tetragonoloba, don’t work for weight loss. And guar gum may intensify insulin action (thus driving down blood sugar to possibly dangerous levels), decrease the effectiveness of oral contraceptives and cause gastrointestinal upset.

Hoodia (Hoodia gordonii), a much-talked-about, cactus-like plant used by Kalahari bushmen to cut appetite during frequent food shortages, is, ironically, now sought after because of the dietary overconsumption of Westerners. According to an animal study published in Brain Research in 2004, hoodia may fool the hypothalamus into thinking the body has enough energy, so less food is desired. Appropriate dosage and possible side effects in humans are not yet known.

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