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Herbal Weight-Loss Pills

  • Chris Woolston. M.S.
  • Posted March 11, 2013

Can dietary supplements help me lose weight?

"Eat! Eat! Eat! And Always Stay Thin! No Diet, No Exercise!" Sounds great, doesn't it? Unfortunately, you'll have a hard time responding to this particular ad. For one thing, it dates to the early 1900's. And, to make matters worse, pharmacies no longer sell the miracle product: sanitized tape worms.

Weight loss products have changed in the last century, but the pitches remain the same. Indeed, many herbs, supplements, and diet pills promise results that would put even the most efficient tape worms to shame. Of course, it's no secret that many of these products are fraudulent. But is it possible that a few of them really can live up to their claims?

Here's a look at some popular herbs and dietary supplements that have at least some potential to help people lose weight. As you'll see, however, the search for a "magic fat burning pill" is far from over. In the meantime, it's good to know which of these supplements are not only unproven, but potentially dangerous.

Chromium

This mineral, found in tiny amounts in almost all foods, helps the body burn fat, build muscle, and control blood sugar. A little chromium is essential to good health, but does that mean extra chromium must be extra healthy?

Supplement marketers and manufacturers claim that chromium pills are a shortcut to the perfect body, but the benefits are far from certain. For one thing, chromium is a nutrient and not a drug, which means it can only help people who don't get enough chromium in their diet. And while a few studies have found that chromium supplements apparently lead to small gains in muscle and modest weight loss (as in roughly 2 pounds of fat lost per month), several recent studies have found no such effects.

Richard A. Anderson, lead scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center, has studied chromium supplements in many contexts over the last 20 years, and he's never seen the supplements change a person's body weight. Dr. Anderson summed up his opinion of the supplements in the journal Nutrition Reviews: "Chromium is only a small part of the puzzle in weight loss and body composition, and its effects, if present, will be small compared with those of exercise and a well-balanced diet."

Ephedra (ma huang)

Watch out for this one. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the sale of pills containing ephedra in 2004, but unscrupulous suppliers still offer it online. Ephedra was a key ingredient in so-called "natural" herbal alternatives to the now-banned prescription anti-obesity drug known as "fen-phen". The FDA considers "herbal fen-phen" products to be unapproved drugs that have not been proven safe or effective and that contain ingredients linked to numerous injuries.

Ephedra is the natural source of the amphetamine-like stimulant ephedrine. Its key ingredient can act as a powerful decongestant, suppress appetite, and speed the burning of fat, but in diet pills, the dangers of ephedra far outweigh the benefits. Before banning ephedra products, the FDA logged over 1,000 serious reactions that may have been linked to the herb, including 38 deaths. The reactions included soaring blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, insomnia, tremors, seizures, heart attack, and stroke. In any case, ephedra can't make a big dent in your waistline. According to a report in the journal Obesity Research, Danish researchers found that ephedrine combined with caffeine helped obese patients on a strict diet lose an extra 7.5 pounds over six months compared with patients who simply dieted. Any product that promised to "melt away almost eight pounds in just six months" wouldn't exactly fly off the shelves.

HCA

HCA, short for hydroxycitric acid, is an herbal extract found in at least 14 commercial weight-loss drugs. The chemical, which is distilled from a family of plants native to India, supposedly suppresses the appetite and slows down the conversion of carbohydrates into fat.

While the compound really can help fat rodents slim down, it may not have the same effect of people. In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers from Columbia University gave HCA supplements (1,500 milligrams each day) to 66 overweight patients. Another 69 patients took a daily placebo, or dummy pill. All of the subjects were on a high-fiber, low-calorie diet throughout the study. Twelve weeks later, patients in both groups had lost weight, but researchers concluded that HCA failed to produce significant weight loss.

Pyruvate

This natural compound found in all plants and animals has gained wide popularity as a muscle builder and weight-loss aid. Our cells produce pyruvate when we take energy from sugar, and some studies suggest that pyruvate supplements help burn calories.

Marketers claim pyruvate is a natural alternative to prescription diet drugs such as phentermine and fenfluramine (phen-fen), but a recent report in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition calls such statements false and misleading. There's no evidence that pyruvate comes anywhere close to matching the slimming powers of prescription drugs. In one of the few human studies of pyruvate, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center found that overweight patients who took the supplements lost an extra 1.3 pounds over six weeks compared with patients who took a placebo. You should also be aware that ingesting large amounts of pyruvate can cause intestinal distress, bloating, and diarrhea.

PPA

Short for phenylpropanolamine, PPA is the active ingredient in Acutrim and several other over-the-counter dieting aids. PPA was the most popular weight loss drug in the country, but it didn't win that position with astounding results. According to Robert Sherman of the FDA's Office of Over the Counter Drug Evaluation, "even the best studies show only about a half pound greater weight loss per week using PPA combined with diet and exercise."

The FDA also learned of serious reactions -- including extreme spikes in blood pressure, headaches, strokes, and eight deaths -- linked to PPA. Some of these victims overdosed, but two thirds took the drug as directed. In 2001, the FDA classified PPA as unsafe and manufacturers voluntarily removed it from the market.

References

Mayo Clinic. Ephedra (Ephedra sinica)/Ma huang. Updated Dec. 20, 2010.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Phenylpropanolamine (PPA) Information Page. December 2005.

Lake CR, et al. Adverse drug effects attributed to phenylpropanolamine: a review of 142 case reports. Am J Med 1990 Aug;89(2):195-208.

Saper RB, et al. Common Dietary Supplements for Weight-Loss. American Family Physician. Volume 70, Number 9. November 2004.

Astrup A, et al. Pharmacological and clinical studies of ephedrine and other thermogenic agonists. Obes Res 1995 Nov;3 Suppl 4:537S-540S.

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