Do Weight Loss Supplements Work? That’s The $8 Billion Question

Consumers around the world spend nearly $8 billion a year on weight loss supplements, hoping to find a safe and effective way to lose weight. People hoping to lose weight quickly are especially drawn to claims of fast results.

A review of clinical trials into whether there are over-the-counter weight loss supplements that work shows the results are mixed. As the review abstract states:

“… not all supplements that are touted for weight loss have published clinical support for efficacy …. Although several dozen different dietary supplements are sold, only 14 published studies were identified. Four individual ingredients and three blends of ingredients were considered to be effective.”

A closer look at the studies cited in the review shows that some were conducted by weight loss supplement makers who have a vested interest in positive results and often use questionable methods in their clinical trials.

They also pump up sometimes scant evidence that a particular ingredient or blend had a positive effect on weight loss while ignoring health risks and side effects.

This post aims to provide information and guidance to help you understand how the effectiveness of weight loss supplements is determined and whether a weight loss supplement might work for you.

Start with realistic expectations … and be patient

Effectiveness of weight loss supplements that work are generally defined as promoting one to two pounds of weight loss each week when studied in a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial.

Here, it will be helpful to look at some terminology related to testing of weight loss supplements.

Placebo controlled means that some trial participants are given the weight loss supplement that is being tested while others are given a placebo ― a pill that looks exactly like the supplement being tested but has no functional ingredients.

Double blind means neither the participants nor the researchers know which participants are taking the weight loss supplement and which are taking the placebo, until after the trial is complete.

Anything less than one pound of weight loss per week would be considered statistically insignificant as evidence of weight loss supplements that work.

While one to two pounds of weight loss per week may sound “small” to someone who wants to lose a lot of weight fast, you have to keep in mind that weight loss is a long-term process. Chances are, you didn’t gain the extra weight you want to lose in just a few weeks or months, so you aren’t likely to lose it that fast, either.

What’s more, losing weight too fast can lead to serious health risks, and is often difficult to maintain. So, even weight loss supplements that work to help you lose weight fast may not be a safe or effective long-term solution.

Think of it this way: If you find weight loss supplements that work to help you lose one to two pounds per week, you will lose 50 to 100 pounds in a year! For most people, that is life-changing weight loss.

Understand how weight loss supplements work

Over-the-counter weight loss supplements come in a variety of forms ― usually pills, capsules or tablets ― and contain ingredients like herbs, herbal extracts or chemicals formulated to assist in helping users lose weight.

The three primary types of weight loss supplements that work are fat blockers, metabolism boosters and hunger-control supplements.

  • Fat blockers prevent your body from absorbing some of the fat in food you eat so that it passes out of your body undigested, helping you take in fewer calories.
  • Fat burners or metabolism boosters help you burn calories more efficiently.
  • Hunger-control supplements help suppress appetite and reduce cravings, again so that you can take in fewer calories and lose weight.

Each of these “modes of actions” for weight loss supplements comes with its own benefits as well as side effects.

So, what are the weight loss supplements that work?

One thing must be clear from the beginning: There are NO weight loss supplements that work when they aren’t used in conjunction with balanced, healthy eating and regular exercise.

You can’t depend on weight loss supplements and expect to drop pounds without taking responsibility for what and how much you eat, as well as committing to physical activity.

Having said that, here are some ingredients and weight loss supplements that work, e.g. have shown evidence of effectiveness in clinical trials when paired with a reduced-calorie diet and exercise:

  • Green tea extract/ECGC ― While study outcomes are inconsistent, there is some evidence that an EGCG-caffeine mixture has a small positive effect on weight loss and weight maintenance. Green tea extract has been shown in some studies to increase fat oxidation at rest and during exercise. Green tea extract is generally considered safe when used in moderation, but at higher levels can produce typical caffeine/stimulant-related side effects such as jitters, restlessness and racing heart.
  • Lovidia ― Lovidia is made by Ambra Bio, the author of this post. It uses a mode of action called Gut Sensory Modulation (GSM) to reduce hunger so that users eat fewer calories, making it easier to lose weight. GSM has been tested and shown in multiple double-blind, placebo-controlled, clinical trials on human subjects to enhance weight loss. GSM uses only FDA-GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) food-grade ingredients, and no negative side effects have been observed in clinical trials.
  • Orlistat ― The active ingredient in over-the-counter Alli, Orlistat is an FDA-approved drug. Orlistat works by blocking the enzyme that breaks down fats in your diet, so they pass out of your body undigested, helping you absorb fewer calories. Orlistat is proven effective at aiding weight loss in clinical; albeit with very modest results. It also comes with significant side effects, which span from potential nutritional deficiency to uncontrollable diarrhea.

As you can see, the list of weight loss supplements that work is rather limited. For a detailed look at what studies on popular weight loss supplement ingredients say about both their effectiveness and safety, please refer to our previous post, Understanding Weight Loss Supplements, Pills, Shakes & Vitamins.

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