One pill won’t make you small: Busting the myth of weight-loss supplements

In the “summer of love” in 1967 San Francisco, the band Jefferson Airplane (named after my favorite president, and what used to my favorite mode of transportation back in the U.S. Air Force) released an interesting song based on the book “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

The lyrics—with one slight modification—tell you everything you need to know about the supplements taken by a generation of women attempting weight loss.

“One pill doesn’t make you small

And the ones that mother gives you

Don’t do anything at all. 

Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall.”

The summer of love may be long over, but this surrealistic song endures. And unfortunately, still do unrealistic weight-loss pills.

But I urge you—don’t be lost like Alice in the wonderland of weight-loss supplements.

As this summer winds down and all of the holidays in which food and drink play a prominent part approach, you may be thinking about using weight-loss supplements to make a pre-emptive strike against excess body weight. But beware…

I have always said there is no such thing as “weight loss” pills and other supplements.

Weight loss is achieved by reducing the amount of calories you take in, cutting carbs, and maintaining physical activity. Not by popping a pill supposedly “guaranteed” to melt off fat or turbocharge your metabolism.

Nor can you simply sweat off the pounds. In a May Daily Dispatch (“This is your father’s weight loss advice—it really works”), I reported on new research that shows you can’t lose weight just by increasing your workouts alone—even if you spend all day in the gym (although that might be enough to make you lose your appetite altogether).

You must reduce caloric intake by choosing healthy, nutrient-dense foods like fruit, vegetables, eggs, fish, meat, and seafood; cutting sugar and carbs; and strictly limiting portion sizes.

And there is no way around these simple truths.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should avoid all supplements if you want to lose weight.

The supplements you should be taking

Some dietary supplements are very important when you are restricting food intake. They help make sure you get enough of the vitamins and minerals that are not only essential for good health, but that also keep your metabolism at optimal levels. Shutting down metabolism in an attempt to lose weight is self-defeating.

So if you’re cutting calories, make sure you get enough vitamin C (500 mg twice per day), vitamin D (10,000 IU per day), and vitamin E (400 IU per day). And don’t forget a high-quality vitamin B complex that contains at least the following dosages: 50 mg each of thiamine, riboflavin (B2), niacin/niacinamide, B6, and pantothenic acid, plus 400 micrograms of folic acid/folate, 12 mcg of B12, and 100 mcg of biotin.

I also recommend supplements containing South African “aspal” (red bush) or Sutherlandia frutescens (the “African ginseng,”), as well as dandelion. These herbs help keep you naturally hydrated and energized while you lose weight.

And they help you detox naturally. You see, when you break down fats by restricting calories, your body releases fat-soluble toxins (like pesticides, pollutants, and heavy metals) from the tissues into the blood. The “herbal hero trio” of aspal, African ginseng, and dandelion helps keep your blood, liver, and kidneys healthy so they can filter and flush these excess toxins out of your blood.

But supplements that claim to cause weight loss are another story. I have never been able to get evidence that any of them really work.

The supplements you shouldn’t be taking

Pushing the natural products industry to provide credible, scientific information about weight loss supplements is like pushing a pile of Jell-O. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission agrees. When I was serving as one of the first consultants to the FTC on natural and nutritional health during the 1990s, the No. 1 category for false claims and fraudulent advertising was weight loss supplements.

And that certainly hasn’t improved in subsequent years. In a March Daily Dispatch (“You may not like what you find behind the curtain in the Land of Oz,”) I reported on what was perhaps the single most spectacular failure on “The Dr. Oz Show” (among a long list). A “doctor” with highly questionable credentials was allowed onto the show to promote green coffee beans as a weight-loss supplement.

The problem? There’s no credible science to back up this claim. The FTC fined the so-called “celebrity nutritionist,” but only after he had made millions by selling green coffee beans after touting them on Oz TV. Seems the only thing green that worked with these coffee beans was the credulous consumers’ money lining his pockets.

In 2014, the well-respected British Medical Journal published a study showing that your chances of getting accurate information on Dr. Oz and other pop TV doctor shows are about 50:50.1 You need, want, and deserve better than that. And you would think any real doctor would insist on better scientific evidence for his or her audience.

But despite the lack of serious science, many people still fall for “lose weight quick” supplements claims. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 15 percent of all Americans have tried a weight-loss supplement. And they spend a total of $2 billion a year for these dubious products.2

Based on the most credible research on “weight loss” supplements, I’ve ranked them in order of worst to first. The worst not only don’t help you drop pounds, but also are dangerous for your health.

Diuretics and laxatives. These adulterants are often snuck into so-called “natural” weight-loss supplements. In fact, a recent study of 26 supposedly “herbal” weight-loss products found that five had a diuretic listed on the ingredients panel, and another three actually had hidden diuretics.3

Diuretics and laxatives can temporarily create the illusion of weight loss by purging the body of water and waste. But this can lead to dehydration and diarrhea—not to mention probable negative effects on beneficial probiotic gut bacteria. The irony, of course, is that a growing body of evidence shows that the healthier our gut, the healthier our weight.

Bitter orange extract.  This extract from Seville oranges is often found in weight-loss products. It’s reputed to increase metabolic rate and fat breakdown, improve stamina, and mildly suppress appetite.

Studies have linked this herb to cardiovascular events, but have been clouded by use of non-standardized extracts.4 Still, why subject yourself to any potential risk of a heart attack or stroke? Don’t get taken to the barbershop by purveyors of Seville orange extract.

Green tea extract. The caffeine in green tea may help lead to some weight loss. But a large review of studies involving nearly 2,000 people found that various types of green tea products and supplements produced only small reductions in weight.5

As I reported in the April 2014 issue of Insiders’ Cures (“The sinister secrets swirling inside your teapot”), the benefits of green tea in general have been overstated. And there are several health risks. Bottom line: There are much safer, more effective ways to lose weight than by taking green tea supplements.

Chromium. Our bodies need this essential mineral to break down carbs. Chromium has also been reported to promote healthy insulin levels, reduce food cravings, and increase metabolic rate.

So it’s no surprise that many weight loss supplements include chromium. But a review of studies on this mineral found that 200 to 400 mcg a day only leads to a very small level of weight loss.6

Many quality nutritional formulations contain chromium. I recommend you get your dose of this important mineral that way, rather than in a weight-loss supplement that can be adulterated with unsafe and useless ingredients.

Capsaicin. This active ingredient in chili peppers has been shown to increase energy expenditure after a meal and reduce appetite. A recent analysis of 20 studies found that taking a minimum of 2 mg a daily of capsaicin is equivalent to cutting 50 calories a day.7

Sounds great, until you do the math. Most people need to cut at least 500 to 1,000 calories per day for meaningful weight loss. You likely would have a hard time—and a hot time—consuming that much chili pepper every day.

But that doesn’t mean you should avoid this fiery food or supplement. Capsaicin in small doses, or in normal food quantities, is an excellent ingredient for pain and joint health. And chili peppers are also a great source of vitamin C and other nutrients.

Coffee and caffeine. I’ve written before about the many health properties associated with coffee and caffeine. And research shows that consuming at least 300 mg a day (about two to three cups of coffee) may have some beneficial effects on weight loss.

That’s associated with caffeine’s effect as a central nervous system stimulant. One study showed that drinking coffee increases energy expenditure for several hours after consumption.8 And another study showed that people who drink coffee may eat less food shortly afterwards.9

You can buy caffeine pills as a weight loss supplement, but they can also include dangerous adulterants. That’s why I recommend skipping the sketchy supplements and just drinking three to four cups of coffee per day to get the real health benefits for body and brain.

So when it comes to dropping a few pounds, remember there is a role for some dietary supplements—just not any of the ones labeled as “weight loss” supplements.

SIDEBAR: Unfit fitness foods

The burgeoning “fitness food” industry seduces people into thinking that designer candy bars and so-called “trail mixes” can actually make them more fit. But new research shows quite the opposite.

A study published in June in the Journal of Marketing Research analyzed three studies on trail mix involving more than 500 people. (That was a fitting place to publish this research because this gimmicky product category has a lot more to do with marketing than with medicine.) The researchers found that the participants who were given trail mix actually ate more and exercised less after eating it.

Plus, the people who were most worried about their weight ate the most trail mix. And exercised the least.10

In other words, trail mix does not appear to be a cue for hitting the trail. But rather for hitting the couch.

The researchers said they somehow expected that “restrained eaters” would work out more after eating a “fitness food” because they would want to burn off the extra calories. And they would be encouraged by the fitness label to reach their exercise goals. But the researchers actually found the opposite to be true. Hardly a surprise.

Food manufacturers have long lured us with images of athleticism and fitness—ever since Wheaties starting putting pro athletes and Olympic medal winners on its cereal boxes. What a brilliant marketing stroke. Getting people to buy grains originally intended as horse fodder.

Research should be done before launching a product if the manufacturer wants to make a “fitness” claim (FDA or FTC anywhere?). Instead, the only pre-market research seems to be about how to get people to buy more junk by disguising it as “fitness.”

On top of that, portion sizes for sports foods are often smaller, meaning people overestimate the appropriate serving sizes. And they are given the go-ahead for more “guilt-free” eating by labels such as “low fat.”

Of course, low fat usually just means high sugar and carbs—a bad idea for fitness, weight, and health. But what a great deal for manufacturers, which charge more for smaller products just by finding the right fitness-sounding name.

Meanwhile, there is a more basic flaw in the whole “fitness foods” concept. Real athletes do need more food and calories. But people trying to lose weight need to consume less food and fewer calories. So how can a “fitness” food designed for an athlete make any sense for anyone trying to lose weight?




1“Televised medical talk shows—what they recommend and the evidence to support their recommendations: a prospective observational study.” BMJ 2014;349:g7346.


3“Determination of diuretics and laxatives as adulterants in herbal formulations for weight loss”. Food Addit Contam Part A Chem Anal Control Expo Risk Assess 2013;30:1230-1237.

4“A review of the human clinical studies involving Citrus aurantium (bitter orange) extract and its primary protoalkaloid p-synephrine.” Int J Med Sci 2012;9:527-538.

5“Green tea for weight loss and weight maintenance in overweight or obese adults.” Cochrane Database Syst Review. 2012;12:CD008650.

6“Chromium supplementation in overweight and obesity: a systemic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials.” Obes Rev. 2013;14:496-507.

7“Capsaicinoids and capsinoids. A potential role for weight management? A systemic review of the evidence.” Appetite. 2012;59:341-348.

8“Nutraceutical supplements for weight loss: a systemic review.” Nutr Clin Pract. 2011;26:539-552.

9“Effects of caffeine ingestion on exercise testing: a meta analysis.” Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2004;14:626-646.

10“The Effect of Fitness Branding on Restrained Eaters’ Food Consumption and Post-Consumption Physical Activity.”