Herbal Weight-Loss Pills

Chris Woolston

Chris Woolston

Updated on December 26, 2022

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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.

Herbal diet pills (general)

Kaiser Health News warned in 2022 that many herbal diet pills contain banned and dangerous ingredients that may cause cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and other ailments. "For example, the FDA advised the public to avoid Slim Sense by Dr. Reade because it contains lorcaserin, which has been found to cause psychiatric disturbances and impairments in attention or memory," the news outlet reported.

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." Plus, you can get too much chromium if you are taking multivitamins and a weight-loss pill with chromium in it. As Kaiser Permanente has cautioned, too much chromium can lead to stomach problems and low blood sugar ( hypoglycemia ), and "too much chromium from supplements can also damage the liver, kidneys, and nerves, and it may cause irregular heart rhythm"

Ephedra (ma huang)

Avoid this one at all costs. 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.

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 However, there are still reports of PPA showing up in supplements, and it has been associated with cases of bleeding strokes.

References

Mayo Clinic. Ephedra (Ephedra sinica)/Ma huang.

California and New York Move to Curb Sales of Herbal Diet Pills to Minors. Kaiser Health News. September 14, 2022. https://khn.org/news/article/california-new-york-curb-diet-pill-sales-minors/

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

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

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

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

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