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What’s in those weight loss pills or supplements ?

Updated on May 30, 2009


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What’s in those weight loss pills or supplements ?

Their product labels don’t reveal things you need to know

Beware of weight-loss pills that  “convert fat to muscles”, “speed metabolism”, “suppress appetite” and other miracles that beckon you to try.

Other than the concern about the efficacy of such purported weight loss pills, consumers should be aware of their ingredients, and the effects they have on their well-being.  Below are some ingredients most commonly used in the pills, and their possible effects.

1. Antioxidants

Commonly used:
Glutathione, green tea extracts and the Brazilian açai berry

Claims :
a)    reduce cell damage that can lead to cancer growth
b)    detoxifies body

Research findings:
a)    In mice, antioxidants called flavenoids and phenolic acids have been found to cut the production of triglycerides in their fat cells.  Their weight-loss potential have not been rigorously tested in humans yet.
b)    Glutathione taken orally is not well absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract.
c)    Researchers still do not know if extracts of green tea and açai berry help to neutralize toxins or dissolve fats.

2.  Aristolochic acid

Cancerous background :
 “One of the most potent human carcinogens ever known".
FDA in 2001 declared the substance to be cancer causing and damaging to human kidneys.

At least 100 women  in Europe participating in a weight-loss product using contained aristolochic acid suffered kidney damage and developed urinary tract cancers.

UC Berkeley's Carcinogenic Potency Project found 112 herbal weight loss products still sold online that contain aristolochic acid. Therefore, “herbal” does not necessarily mean harmless.

Warning :
Aristolochia extracts continue to be used widely in China and can easily find their way to your home or office through global networks.

Avoid :
- any product with the species name "Aristolochia," "Bragantia" or "Asarum"

3. Bitter orange (aka Seville orange or sour orange)

an energy-enhancing fat burner, increases body metabolism and exercise endurance. Some evidence exist that show that bitter orange may cause slightly more weight loss than diet and exercise alone.

Evidence :
Evidence indicates that synephrine – an active ingredient in bitter orange extract --  raises heart rate and blood pressure, which can lead to heart attack and stroke (source: State University of New York at Stony Brook microbiologist Dr. Arthur Grollman)

Single doses of Advantra Z and Xenadrine EFX , two products that contained bitter orange extracts , raised heart beat rates 11 to 16 beats per minute over normal baseline heart rates (source:  Study by  UC San Francisco researchers published in September 2005 in the American Journal of Medicine.)

There "have been reports of fainting, heart attack and stroke in healthy people after taking bitter orange supplements alone or combined with caffeine."  (source : The NIH's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.)

4. Caffeine

Background :
a)    Not often listed as a key ingredient on the product label of weight loss pills and dietary supplements.
b)    Can be found in many varieties of other ingredients used, such as green tea extract (or Camellia sinensis), guarana, yerba maté and kola nut, etc.
Research findings:
a)    1.5 times the caffeine level can cause heart palpitation and sleep disruption. This amount was found in two popular weight-loss products. N4.1
b)    high doses of caffeine have been shown to decrease appetite only temporarily.
c)    Caffeine , as a diuretic,  causes the body to flush out retained water, which helps contribute to short-term weight loss.

N4.1 - Source: Consumer Lab's 2005 review of dietary supplements for weight loss found 1,223 milligrams of caffeine in a day's recommended dosage -- equivalent to 30 cans of cola in Zantrex-3. Xenadrine EFX was found to have less -- 448 milligrams -- but still 1.5 times the caffeine associated with adverse effects 

5. Chitosan

Origin:   product of grinding up the shells of shrimps, crabs and lobsters etc.

Industrial use:
In the water-purification industry as it binds with fats after sprinkling on the top of water holding tanks.

Claims :
a)    supplements containing chitosan  absorb dietary fat before the body does. The useless fat can then be flushed out of the system easily.
b)    Chitosan is  a source of fiber that contributes to sensations of fullness when consumed with a meal.

Research finding :

a) In three clinical trials, there was no difference in weight or serum cholesterol levels among human subjects taking chitosan supplements and a control group after a few weeks.
b) Moreover, chitosan is potentially toxic to people allergic to shellfish.

6. Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)

Origin: a polyunsaturated fat found naturally in milk and meat and derived from the oil of sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) seeds

Claim :
CLA helps dieters convert fat to lean muscle mass e.g.  A product sold in the marketplace, Phosphacore , suggests that Carthamus tinctorius "may work to safely break up and flush away unhealthy adipose (fat) cells."

Research findings:
a) CLA appears to lower HDL ("good") cholesterol even as it is recommended to patients with high cholesterol levels.
b) some evidence exists that too much CLA can lead to a pre-diabetic condition in the obese. E.g. One study found that CLA in humans can prevent some cells from absorbing glucose and fatty acids. As a result, blood sugar and lipids in the blood will increase, raising the risk of diabetes and heart disease.

7. Cortisol blockers

Tinctures of golden root (Rhodiola rosea) or other herbs, such as rose root, are commonly marketed as cortisol blockers.

The hormone cortisol, which can lead to weight gain and belly fat, is released during stress.

No evidence exists that establishes that blocking cortisol causes weight loss, or that herbal remedies lower cortisol levels. N7.1

High levels of cortisol  can lead to accumulation of belly fat only in cases of a pre-existing medical condition, such as Cushing's disease, or as a side effect of certain drugs.

N7.1 -  In 2007, the Federal Trade Commission charged marketers of two products -- CortiSlim and CortiStress, with making unsubstantiated claims about their product's weight-loss properties, ending with a  multi-million dollar settlement.

Consumers should be aware that many products still make such claims.

8. Hoodia

Origin: A native plant of the Kalahari Desert in Africa, eaten by bushmen to reduce their hunger pangs and thirst.

Research findings
a)    An active ingredient in hoodia – p57 – reduced activity in the region of rats’ brains that controlled appetite.
b)    A scientist who once worked for a drug company found that some components from hoodia produced “unwanted effects” on the human liver.
c)    Scientist Jasjit S. Bindra  cautioned dieters to be wary of using hoodia until its safety can be confirmed.

9. Hydroxycitric acid

The Hydroxycut brand was originally based on this ingredient, which is derived from the Malabar tamarind, or Garcinia cambogia.

Can hinder absorption of fat by disrupting the human fat metabolism and suppress appetite.

Research findings:
Rat studies showed that, at doses that appeared effective at reducing fat deposits, hydroxycitrate caused "potent testicular atrophy and toxicity."


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