Weight loss supplements offer quite an allure. From claims to reduce appetite or cravings, increase metabolic rate, provide a laxative effect, or block digestion of fat, carbs, sugars or starches, the appeal is great. Do they work? Are they safe?
Actually very little is known about the effectiveness of these supplements. Ephedra-caffeine products did seem to provide modest success for some people but the potential side effects were serious. The USDA banned the sale of these products in April 2004. There have been a small number of studies on other specific ingredients but many of these studies have included only a small number of people, been of short duration, or followed study procedures that limited the usefulness of the study results.
As of 2004 there were more than 50 individual dietary supplements and more than 125 commercial products with a combination of ingredients available for weight loss. (American Family Physician, Nov. 2004) The numbers are likely higher today. As of October 2006 not a single weight loss product had been approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA).
Too many American adults evidently think weight loss supplements are safer and more effective than they may actually be. Of those adults who have made a significant attempt to lose weight, more than 60 percent of the survey participants believed weight loss supplements have been tested and proven to be safe. (University of Connecticut's Center for Survey Research and Analysis, 2006)
The truth is that FDA-approved drugs must go through years of highly regulated testing with thousands of patients to prove they are safe and effective. Dietary supplements including weight loss supplements DO NOT. With the current law, it is the responsibility of the manufacturer to ensure the safety of the dietary supplements they sell. However, the manufacturer is not required to register with the FDA, identify the products they manufacture, or provide reports of adverse events such as illness or other harm. The reporting is voluntary so only a small number of problems are actually reported.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) does attempt to regulate false, exaggerated or unsubstantiated claims made in the marketing of weight loss products. However, this is a difficult task.
Another potential concern with weight loss supplements is that the ingredients of many products could present dangerous side effects for people with certain health conditions. Also, these supplements can have dangerous interactions with prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs that are being taken at the same time.
Of all Americans who have attempted to lose weight at some time in their adult life, an estimated 34% have actually tried non-prescription weight loss supplements. (Univ. of Connecticut, 2006) Of that number, only a few have told their doctor. (Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2007)
Side effects for those without health conditions or on medications tend to be mild. They might include unpleasant digestive symptoms, insomnia, or rash. However, some weight loss supplements may have more serious adverse effects.
Many supplements are contaminated or contain different amounts of active ingredients than what is actually listed on the label. Or they might contain different active ingredients altogether which could present significant risks. For example, research has found supplements contaminated with pesticides or heavy metals. Some of these are probable carcinogens and are toxic to the liver and kidneys. (United States Government, Testimony by Janet Heinrich, Director of Health Care to the U.S. Senate, 2002)
Weight loss supplements may sound like a good deal. However, without adequate research and regulation, the effectiveness of these supplements is not clear and they do pose a potential risk. The tried and true method of eating a little less and exercising more is still your best bet for long term weight loss success.