Hope or Hype: The Truth About Weight Loss Pills

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We’ve all seen the ads: Supplements promising to help you lose weight, build lean muscle, rev your metabolism and turn you into a fat-burning machine. We admit — the idea of popping a pill to lose weight sounds pretty enticing. After all, it’s so much easier than cleaning up your diet and regularly sweating it out at the gym.

Despite the rise and fall of weight loss pills (remember Fen-Phen, Dr. Oz’s green coffee bean extract debacle?), supplements still line the shelves of most health food and drug stores. Georgia Rounder, RDN, says, “For many individuals seeking to lose weight, weight loss supplements provide a ‘quick fix’ approach to meet their desired weight goals, especially products that are marketed in a flashy, convincing manner.” But do they actually work?

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Weight Loss Supplements: Animal vs. Human Studies

The short answer is there’s no clinical evidence to support the effectiveness of weight loss supplements. Rebecca Ditkoff, MPH, RD, says, “There are no real clinical trials to show that they work in humans.”

While researchers have investigated the ingredients in diet pills, most studies are on animals. “Animal studies are done when initially researching a specific supplement, but human studies are necessary for confirming the effectiveness of the supplement in the body’s physiological makeup,” Rounder says.

For example, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a supplement touted as a fat burner. “Some research has shown that CLA may be beneficial in decreasing fat mass in animals,” Rounder says. But according to Rounder, human studies are inconclusive and have an overall minimal effect on total body weight and body fat.

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Garcinia Cambogia: Decoding Diet Pill Claims

For other supplements, the findings have been inconclusive. Garcinia cambogia is a supplement that comes from the pulp and rind of a fruit-bearing tree of the same name. “Many weight loss benefits have been proposed for this supplement, including the suppression of food intake throughout the day. But short-term clinical trials completed up to this point reveal next to no effect on total body weight,” Rounder says.

Another example is raspberry ketones, a natural phenolic compound found in raspberries that’s believed to make it harder for your body to store fat. “However, this particular supplement was primarily studied in combination with other ingredients. This prevents us from making conclusions about using it as a weight loss supplement,” Rounder says.

Industry partners or the supplement companies also sponsor some of the research on weight loss pills. “This can lead to a bias within the research and ultimately favor the industry’s product or aim in some way,” Rounder says. Plus, Ditkoff says some diet pills can have the opposite effect of wrecking your metabolism and causing weight gain.

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Are You Getting What You Paid For?

Contrary to what you might think, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate weight loss supplements. Unlike drugs, which go through rigorous clinical trials, manufacturers don’t need to prove that dietary supplements are safe.

So for advertisements that claim to help you burn fat 10 times faster than normal, the manufacturer doesn’t actually have to demonstrate that those claims are true. What’s promised on the packaging isn’t always in the pills, so there’s a risk you don’t get what you buy.

“Since they’re not approved by the FDA, you don’t even know what’s in them, which is pretty scary,” Ditkoff says. “They can have fillers and additives. You don’t know what else is in there.”

In fact, Vox investigated current dietary and weight loss supplements on the market and found that many contained hidden drugs, including ones that have been pulled from the U.S. market. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 20,000 emergency room visits each year are from adverse reactions to dietary supplements. Think: palpitations, chest pain and increased blood pressure. Nearly 72 percent of those cases are from weight loss or energy products.

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A Smarter Weight Loss Solution

The truth is there isn’t one pill that’s going to fix everything. But if you want to introduce a new supplement to your regimen, talk to a professional. “If you’re seriously considering taking any of these supplements on a routine basis, first consult your physician to get the final OK,” Rounder says.

Taking a weight loss pill can sometimes do more damage than good. “Depending on the supplement and your medical history, the side effects of these supplements may include GI distress, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, brain fog and headaches. They may even interfere with the absorption of key vitamins and minerals,” Rounder says. Ditkoff says the key to weight loss is lifestyle change. That means committing to eating a balanced diet and getting more exercise. And be patient. While you may wish for instant, healthy weight loss is a long-term affair.

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