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The Skinny on Weight Loss Products

Learn the details and the risks BEFORE you take diet products

By Janice Hughes, Share Guide Publisher

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Many of us have struggled to lose weight at one time or another. In fact, it's a huge issue for lots of people, especially since this society places so much emphasis on being thin. According to one search engine, an average of 300,000 people search the internet for the term "weight loss" every month. The weight loss industry represents billions of dollars, yet despite all of the attention obesity is on the rise--as a nation we are fatter than ever. Weight loss products position themselves as "the answer" and pray on our insecurities, frustration, and confusion.

Unfortunately, the truth is that there is no magic pill out there. The majority of the products on the market today have absolutely no effect on weight loss whatsoever. And one thing I cannot stress enough: natural does not mean safe. The only products that have been proven truly effective require a prescription, and those come with a host of side effects, can be addicting, and don't work for everyone. The bottom line is that the healthy, safe and effective way to lose weight does not involve a diet pill. Exactly what you should eat and how much you should exercise is debated by doctors and researchers--other articles in this issue cover this--but everyone agrees that to lose weight you need to do two things: eat less and exercise more.

Before I discuss specific weight loss products, there are two other ways to aid weight loss worth mentioning, and they don't involve spending any money. One is to drink lots of purified water--at least 8 glasses per day. The other method is to breathe. That's right! Breathing exercises can help you lose weight. (There is an excellent book on this subject entitled Jumpstart Your Metabolism: How to Lose Weight by Changing the Way You Breathe by Pam Grout.) These are two things you need to practice to get in the habit, but they only take a few minutes and they're free.

There are hundreds of weight loss products on the market. With all of the hype, it's impossible to tell what's what. I decided to research this in order to compile a list of the most popular products and their effectiveness, in an effort to cut through all the hype and false information out there. The surprising thing I found is that once you look more closely, there are really only a handful of substances out there--including herbs, amino acids, enzymes, etc--that make up the ingredients in the vast majority of over-the-counter (OTC) weight loss products. They are just being sold under a lot of different names, with a big variety in price and marketing. So here is the list of products, which I hope you will find helpful.

Stimulants - by far the most popular category

Ephedra (Ma Huang) -- this stimulant does work well for some things. Chinese herbalists use it to treat respiratory infections, and ephedrine (a derivative) is in most asthma medications and allergy pills because it has powerful bronchodilation properties. But as a weight loss aid this is not the way to go, even though this stimulant is probably the most common ingredient in all weight loss products. It is often combined with caffeine and aspirin, known as an E/C/A stack. This is basically like taking speed. (There is only a slight difference chemically between methamphetamine and ephedrine.) The idea is it suppresses appetite, thus leading to weight loss. But there are many side effects, such as irregular or accelerated heart rate, insomnia, elevated blood pressure, shortness of breath, seizures, etc. It is extremely misleading to label products with these stimulants "all natural" because then people think they must be harmless. Too much of this stuff can be very dangerous, even fatal, especially if you have high blood pressure or heart problems. (Ephedra is natural in the same sense that arsenic is also natural.) Even if stimulants like Ephedra do work for you temporarily, research has shown that you gain 100% of the weight back once you stop taking it.

Other Herbal Stimulants - The bottom line is that although stimulants can aid in minimizing caloric intake, the main effect is water loss, not real fat loss. Plus they are very addicting, yet extremely unhealthy to take long-term. Stimulants are not an effective way to boost metabolism either, no matter what the label says; exercise is much better at achieving this.

Guarana - made from the seeds of a plant native to Brazil, this is a strong stimulant that has a high amount of caffeine. Side effects from guarana may include nausea, dizziness, insomnia, anxiousness, etc.

Yerba Maté (also known as Paraguay tea) - a strong central nervous system stimulant that acts very much like caffeine. It has not been proven to aid in weight loss but can cause high blood pressure, insomnia, and other side effects associated with stimulants.

Kola Nut -- the seed kernel of a large African tree, this is the active ingredient in Coca Cola and contains caffeine.

Bitter Orange (Synephrine) -- the active ingredient is called synephrine, which is similar to ephedrine.


These products often contain stimulants such as ephedrine or caffeine (see description on previous page), but may also include other ingredients that can decrease fat absorption and/or increase muscle mass. (Some of these ingredients will be covered separately later in this article.) The claim is that thermogenics increase your metabolism, but the only proven and safe way to do this is through exercise. Instead of looking for a quick fix in a bottle, we should all try taking a walk or going for a bicycle ride.

Leptoprin (Anorex) -- This product is made up primarily of the E/C/A stack of ephedra, caffeine and aspirin, and is not really different than many other so called thermagenic products on the market. However, this product sells like crazy, so I wanted to investigate. It's main claim to fame is that it's very expensive ($153/bottle). In fact, that seems to be the focus of the ad campaign for this product: it's so costly that it must be good. Their TV commercials say things like'"it's much too powerful for the casual dieter." Refer to the section on stimulants as to why to stay away from products like this.

More "Miracle" Products

This is a derivative of chitin, which is a substance found in the shells of sea creatures such as shrimp, lobsters, and crabs. It cannot be digested and passes through your body without adding any calories. It is supposed to reduce fat absorption because its chemical nature makes it to bind with fatty foods, removing some of the fat from your body. However, studies have found it no more effective in weight loss than a placebo. And according to a study by HealthWatch, an independent watch-dog group, there was no measurable increase in the amount of fat excreted after taking this product. In addition, it may be dangerous, by inhibiting your body's ability to absorb certain nutrients such as the fat-soluble vitamins A and D and certain phyto-chemicals found in vegetables and fruit.

CLA - Conjugated Linoleic Acid
This fatty acid is supposed to speed up fat metabolism and increase muscle mass. Not yet proven for weight loss, CLA can cause flatulence and gastrointestinal discomfort.

Chromium (GTF Chromium/Chromium Picolinate)
This is a trace mineral that may help reduce sugar cravings and regulate appetite by stabilizing blood sugar levels. The evidence on chromium as a weight loss aid is still inconclusive, but some health practitioners do advocate it as part of an entire weight loss program. It won't help you lose weight by itself, but if you take it along with changing your diet and adding exercise, it may be helpful. (Make sure to follow the recommended dosage, as an overdose of this mineral can lead to kidney damage.)

GLA - Gamma-Linolenic Acid
Found in evening primrose oil, GLA is an essential fatty acid advocated by some, such as nutritionist Ann Louise Gittleman, as helping to burn off extra calories and boost energy.

HCA - Hydroxycitric Acid
This is the active ingredient in Garcinia Cambogia, which is an evergreen tree from Southeast Asia. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, some data from animal studies suggest HCA may suppress appetite and the formation of fats and cholesterol in the liver, but there's no evidence that it's effective for weight loss in humans. Columbia University researchers performed a study in 1998 and found no measurable results for weight loss attributable to this product.

5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan)
This is supposed to help you lose weight by raising the levels of serotonin, which can influence eating behavior. The body turns the amino acid tryptophan into 5-HTP. (Tryptophan was banned by the FDA due to health risks.) 5-HTP can have bad interactions with certain drugs, and is harmful to women who are pregnant or nursing. It is not a good idea to take this substance without consulting your doctor first.

an amino acid claimed to help with weight loss by increasing energy and lean muscle mass. So far the jury is still out on this one.

Pyruvate (Pyruvic Acid)
This is a naturally occurring enzyme that forms in the body during digestion of carbohydrates and protein. Some products containing this ingredient claim that it is a natural alternative to Fen-phen (fenfluramine), but a report in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition claims such statements false and misleading. (Fen-phen was extremely popular, but banned by the FDA in 1997 due to heart problems developing in some people who took the product.) There has been at least one study where researchers found pyruvate no more effective than a placebo, and side effects can include intestinal distress, bloating, and diarrhea. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, "pyruvate does not cross easily from our blood into our cells, so even taking large amounts of it will have little or no effect in burning off of fat. At best, it is just another diet pill 'miracle' that will only slim down your wallet."

PPA (Phenylpropanolamine)
Never proven effective in weight loss, PPA was banned in 2000 by the FDA from being sold without a prescription because it was deemed too dangerous. At the time it was the active ingredient in Dexatrim, Acutrim and several other OTC products. It can cause headaches, extreme spikes in blood pressure, stroke, and even death in some cases.

Herbal Diuretics
Very common in OTC weight loss products, diuretics can trick you into thinking you're getting thinner, when all you are really doing is losing water weight. Herbal diuretics include hawthorn, dandelion, juniper seeds, horse tail, shave grass, and green tea. Most of these herbs are not toxic, but some can have bad interactions with prescription medications. And if you abuse these products, too much water loss will deplete your body of sodium and potassium. A much healthier way to achieve the same effect is to drink lots of purified water. You will lose excess water weight, hydrate your skin, and get other health benefits as well.

Other Herbs for Weight Loss

-- this is a kind of seaweed that contains a high amount of iodine, which may stimulate the thyroid. Unless you know you have an iodine deficiency, it is not a really good idea to take this.

St. John's Wort
-- primarily used to fight depression, this herb has not been proven effective for weight loss and can actually be dangerous. If you take St. John's wort, you need to avoid certain medications such as Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil, and foods containing tyramine such as wine, cheese and aged meats.

White Willow Bark
-- this herb contains the active ingredient in aspirin. It may work for a headache, but it is not proven effective for weight loss.

Dietary Fiber
The idea behind taking products with dietary fiber is that they will make you feel full, so you supposedly eat less. They also aid in elimination, which can help with detoxification.

Pectin -- this is a soluble fiber that occurs naturally in such fruits as apples, pears, and bananas. Pectin's actual effect on appetite may vary for different people.

Guar Gum
-- a dietary fiber obtained from the Indian cluster bean, guar gum is used in many foods as a thickening agent. This fiber is supposed to make you feel full like pectin, but it can cause gastrointestinal disorders and fluctuations in blood sugar levels.

-- derived from the konjac root, it can absorb a great deal of water and thus promote a feeling of fullness.

Fenugreek Seeds --contain 40% soluble fiber, which has the same effects as listed above. Fenugreek seeds may also reduce blood glucose levels.

Shop Books & CD's related to Weight Loss

Related Info:
Dr. Andrew Weil on Eating for Optimal Health
Eating For Health
Feeling Fat, Fuzzy or Frazzled?
Eating Well on a Gluten-Free Diet
The Truth about Cholesterol
Hidden Signs of Heart Attack in Women
Barry Sears on The Zone Diet
Managing Dietary Restrictions
The Power of Metabolism
Do You Have Thyroid Problems?
Self-Hypnosis for Weight Loss

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