Informational Articles

Is It Ever OK to Take a Weight-Loss Supplement?

weight loss supplements

PHOTOGRAPH BY SHUTTERSTOCK

With water pills, herbs, and “metabolism boosters” lining drugstoreshelves and filling up our Pinterest feeds, we’d be lying if we said we weren’t at least a little curious as to whether they work.

So is it ever OK to pop a supplement in hopes of giving that scale a little nudge?

Well, according to the experts, the answer is “hell no!”

Here’s why:

Most Don’t Work
“Weight-loss supplements are largely a waste of time and money. Most do not work to promote weight loss, and any effect some have will be temporary,” says Michael W. Smith, M.D., medical director and chief medical editor at WebMD.

For instance, water pills, often taken to kick off weight-loss efforts, are diuretics. They dehydrate you so that you lose water weight—not fat, he says. What happens when you stop taking the supplement? You gain all of the weight back.

And supplements that claim to boost metabolism are unproven, says Smith. Since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t consider supplements to be “drugs” (more on that later), it doesn’t regulate their effectiveness. So companies have zero incentive to make sure they actually work, says board-certified family and bariatric physician Spencer Nadolsky, a doctor of osteopathic medicine and diplomate of the American Board of Obesity Medicine.

Because supplements aren’t considered drugs, supplement companies can’t legally claim that they’ll help you lose weight or increase your metabolic rate, either, says Nadolsky. “But they still do it, and then pay a fine because they can make more money that way,” he says. It could take years before a company gets shut down for making unfounded claims.

A few years ago, when garcinia cambogia extract was sweeping the web, one company even illegally used the Women’s Health logo to promote the supplement. Fast-forward to 2016 and though the company is no longer using WH’s likeness to pedal pills, they’re still claiming they “burn fat,” and make you “lose weight fast.” Eye roll.

Who Knows What’s in Them?
Because supplements aren’t regulated, there’s no way to know if what’s listed on ingredients labels is what you’ll actually find inside, says Nadolsky.

“There are a few companies that test supplements to ensure they contain what they claim to have,” Smith adds. But these are voluntary programs, and very few supplements undergo such testing, he says. These companies do not ensure the supplement is effective or safe.

Plus, labels often use sketchy phrases to describe mystery ingredients, such as ‘proprietary blend,’ says Smith. Yeah, we have no idea what that is.

You’re Risking Your Health
“With no research and very little government oversight into weight-loss supplements, a user is taking their health into their own hands,” says Smith.

In fact, companies aren’t forced to recall or pull weight-loss supplements from the market until after the FDA receives multiple reports of severe health complications—or death. And, even after people make these reports, many companies still sell the products.

For example, after an investigation into the weight-loss supplementOxyElite Pro Super Thermogenic confirmed it was causing liver failure and acute hepatitis, the FDA only advised consumers to avoid the supplement, which is still available online.

And even though the FDA banned the sale of all ephedra-based supplements in 2004 (for myriad health consequences including death), they’re still legal elsewhere and are all over the Internet.

“Just because a supplement looks ‘natural’ it doesn’t mean it’s harmless,” says Brian Quebbemann, M.D., a bariatric surgeon with the Chapman Medical Center in California and president of The N.E.W. Program.  After all, ephedra is a plant.

“The most honest thing any well-informed physician will say when a patient asks about a weight-loss supplement is ‘don’t,” he says.

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