Weight Loss Supplements—Are They Worth the Cost and Potential Risks?

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June 25, 2014 | 360,999 views

Story at-a-glance

  • Weight loss pills are a nod to the pharmaceutical Band-Aid mentality, and actually run counter to the idea of a healthy lifestyle. This is why I stopped selling weight loss supplements, and it’s why I encourage others to stop
  • Supplements that are deemed hazardous are typically “spiked” with some form of pharmaceutical drug or synthetic ingredient
  • Suspect products are typically of the weight loss or “fat burner” variety, along with muscle-building and energy beverages or pills
  • Pro-pharmaceutical spokesmen have been repeatedly been quoted as saying that dietary supplements are unregulated and need stricter oversight due to the hazards they pose to your health
  • This is patently false, as the FDA regulates both finished dietary supplement products and dietary ingredients under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA)

By Dr. Mercola

Weight loss supplements are notorious for producing negative publicity for the supplement industry. Manufacturers of these "miracle pills" really aren't making them because they truly work and are a valuable part of a healthy lifestyle; they make them because they sell.

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently cracked down on false advertising of weight loss supplements, which led to a Senate's Consumer Protection panel hearing1 being held on June 17, to determine what can be done to protect consumer from weight loss scams.

Senate Hearing Puts Dr. Oz in the Hot Seat

The hearing featured testimony from Dr. Mehmet Oz, who ended up getting grilled over his role in promoting what amounts to fantasy.2 According to Senator Claire McCaskill's website:

"Last month the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced that it is suing the Florida-based company, Pure Green Coffee, alleging that it capitalized on the green coffee bean diet fad by using bogus weight-loss claims and fake news websites to market its dietary supplement.

The FTC claimed that weeks after green coffee was promoted on the Dr. Oz Show, Pure Green Coffee began selling their Pure Green Coffee extract, charging $50 for a one-month supply."

Senator McCaskill read off a number of statements Dr. Oz has made on his show, such as:

"You may think magic is make-believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they've found the magic weight loss cure for every body type: It's green coffee extract."

"I've got the number-one miracle in a bottle, to burn your fat: It's raspberry ketone."

"Garcinia cambogia: It may be the simple solution you've been looking for to bust your body fat for good."

"I don't know why you need to say this stuff," McCaskill said, "because you know it's not true."  Indeed, Dr. Oz is quite knowledgeable and we agree on many things. Unfortunately, I think he may have fallen into the ratings game when it comes to pushing "magic" weight loss pills.

I personally disagree with his stance on hyping up weight loss supplements. I'm particularly against the idea that a pill would be able to take the place of eating right and exercising, and this is something Dr. Oz is guilty of.

In a November 2012 show, he stated: "Thanks to brand new scientific research, I can tell you about a revolutionary fat buster. It's called Garcinia cambogia." Meanwhile, the words "No exercise. No Diet. No Effort" were emblazoned on the screen behind him. Most recently, Dr. Oz featured a product he referred to as "my Rapid Belly Melt.3" Part of the show involved audience members photographing their stomachs. The photos were then photoshopped into a slimmer version. This, supposedly, was the result you could glean from this "insta belly melt" product.

It's quite clear to me that these kinds of products, and especially these kinds of fantasy-based promotions, devalue the supplement industry as a whole. This is tragic, considering the fact that nutritional supplements can serve an important function by helping to correct specific nutritional imbalances or deficiencies.

Long-term, the reputation of supplements is too important to debase the industry with these kinds of short-term profit schemes. I used to carry BioThin in my online store—and it was this realization that made me decide not to promote them, over two years ago.

Elimination of processed foods and sugar and replacing them with high-quality fats and whole foods, intermittent fasting and appropriate high intensity exercise is the way to go if you need to normalize your weight. Supplements are—as their name implies—supplemental to a healthy lifestyle.

Are Supplements Regulated or Not?

Pro-pharmaceutical spokesmen like Dr. Paul Offit and US Senator Dick Durbin have repeatedly stated that dietary supplements are unregulated and need stricter oversight due to the hazards they pose to your health.

This is patently false, and you only have to look at the very first sentence on the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) website4 to settle that dispute. There, it plainly states that:

"FDA regulates both finished dietary supplement products and dietary ingredients. FDA regulates dietary supplements under a different set of regulations than those covering 'conventional' foods and drug products. Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA):

  • The manufacturer of a dietary supplement or dietary ingredient is responsible for ensuring that the product is safe before it is marketed.
  • FDA is responsible for taking action against any unsafe dietary supplement product after it reaches the market."

The FDA can, and has, shut down supplement makers that do not meet these regulations.  For example, in February, the FDA recalled5 a number of "magic" weight loss pills, including SlimEasy, Super Fat Burning Bomb, Slim Xtreme, Magic Slim, and others.

The reason for the recall? These products were found to contain "undeclared active pharmaceutical ingredients," in this case phenolphthalein and sibutramine. No injuries or illnesses have been reported in connection with any of the products. As noted in the press release:

"Phenolphthalein was once an ingredient used in over-the-counter laxatives, but because of concerns of carcinogenicity is not currently approved for marketing in the United States.

Sibutramine is an appetite suppressant (drug Schedule IV) that was withdrawn from the US market in October 2010 for safety reason (seizure, cardiovascular risks: heart attacks, arrhythmia and strokes among others).

These undeclared ingredients makes these products unapproved new drugs for which safety and efficacy have not been established. Consumption of this product could include potentially serious gastrointestinal disturbances, irregular heartbeat, and cancer with long-term use."

Hazardous Supplements Are Typically 'Spiked' with Pharmaceuticals


What is often left out of the conversation is that the vast majority of complaints and/or hazards associated with supplements are limited to a narrow range of products, primarily in the categories of weight loss, muscle-building, high energy products, and some sexual enhancement products.6

Supplements that end up being deemed hazardous are also typically "spiked" with some form of pharmaceutical drug or synthetic ingredient, as was the case above. With very few exceptions, it's not the natural vitamin or herb in itself that is shown to be dangerous. Lumping vitamins, minerals, and herbs with long historical use in with these adulterated types of supplements is unfair and inaccurate in the extreme, but most people don't make this separation when they read that "supplements are dangerous" in the news.

My personal stance is that weight loss supplements are incongruous with a healthy lifestyle. This is why I stopped selling them, and why I encourage other stores to abandon this potentially hazardous Band-Aid approach as well.

Meanwhile, it's important to note that regular vitaminsand other herbal supplements have an outstanding safety record.7 In fact, they may be the safest consumable product category on the market. For example, data from the European Union indicate that pharmaceutical drugs are 62,000 times more likely to kill you than dietary supplements.

FTC Also Regulates Marketing of Supplements

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is also quite active.8 Earlier this year, a number of weight loss companies were scrutinized by the FTC, and four were charged with false advertising.9 These included Sensa, Inc., LeanSpa, L'Occitane, and HCG Diet Direct.

Both the FDA and the FTC have full rights under current regulations to pull any products that are either unsafe or improperly marketed. So do we really have a problem with regulations? No. Any problems we have stem from lack of enforcement of the regulations already in place. 

Furthermore, drugs, which are heavily regulated at great cost, are among the most dangerous products on the market! Vioxx alone killed more than 60,000 people before it was withdrawn. So clearly, regulating supplements like drugs would not necessarily improve safety. It would, however, reduce the number of supplements available as the cost would be too astronomical for supplement makers. Alternatively, your supplements would end up costing as much as drugs...

For Weight Loss, Focus on Your Diet First...

As noted earlier, nutritional supplements can be an integral part of a healthy lifestyle by helping you address specific nutritional deficiencies for example. My stance is that they should not be used in lieu of a healthy diet however. As their name implies, they are supplemental to an otherwise healthy diet. That said, I no longer recommend weight loss supplements and "energy boosters," as I do not believe they "fit" into a truly healthy lifestyle scheme. Not only are they potentially hazardous, but I believe they are ultimately unnecessary, provided you're eating the right foods and, ideally, intermittently fasting. As described at length in other articles, to lose weight, you need to:

  1. Avoid sugar, processed fructose, and grains if you are insulin and leptin resistant. This effectively means you must avoid most processed foods
  2. Eat a healthy diet of whole foods, ideally organic, and replace the grain carbs with:
    • Large amounts of fresh organic locally grown vegetables
    • Low-to-moderate amount of high-quality protein (think organically raised, pastured animals)
    • As much high-quality healthful fat as you want (saturated and monounsaturated from animal and tropical oil sources). Most people actually need upwards of 50-85 percent fats in their diet for optimal health—a far cry from the 10 percent currently recommended. Sources of healthful fats to add to your diet include:
Avocados Butter made from raw grass-fed organic milk Raw dairy Organic pastured egg yolks
Coconuts and coconut oil Unheated organic nut oils Raw Nuts, such as almonds, pecans, and macadamia, and seeds Grass-fed meats

How Do You Determine Whether a Supplement Is of High Quality?

If you want to use a vitamin or herbal supplement, you'd be well advised to make sure you're buying a high-quality product—if not for the reason of safety, then for the reason of maximizing your health benefits. Here are some general guidelines for selecting a high-quality dietary supplement:

  • It is as close as possible to its natural (whole food) form.
  • Independent third-party labs check the raw materials for contaminants and correct dosage.
  • Follows industry standards for quality assurance including ISO 9001, ISO 17025, and Good Manufacturing Processes (GMP) certifications.
  • The utmost care has been taken in all phases of its production, from growing its ingredients, to manufacturing, testing for potency and quality control.
  • It works! I always try to select from companies that have a long track record of providing high-quality products that produce good clinical results.

Remember, if you are interested in optimizing your health and losing weight in the process, your BEST solution is to choose the highest quality foods possible, and eat a wide variety of whole organic foods. You can use my free nutrition plan and work your way up to the advanced stage. Once you have addressed your diet and are looking for further improvement, odds are you might benefit from some supplements, such as animal-based omega-3 supplement and a probiotic for example. There are many others you could then consider depending on your specific circumstances, including a high-quality multivitamin, additional antioxidant support, and others.

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 Claire McCaskill June 10, 2014
  • 2 The Atlantic June 18, 2014
  • 3 Dr. Oz, Belly Melt Tips
  • 4 FDA.gov, Dietary Supplements
  • 5 FDA.gov, Recall February 4, 2014
  • 6 New York Times December 21, 2013
  • 7 Orthomolecular.org June 14, 2011
  • 8 FTC.gov
  • 9 CNN Health January 8, 2014
  • 10 JuniorSlim
  • 11 White Magic ECDY98
  • 12 Dopamite
  • 13 Obesity 2008 Apr;16(4):790-6
  • 14 Can Fam Physician. Mar 2009; 55(3): 257–259
  • 15 J Am Diet Assoc. 2007 Mar;107(3):441-7
  • 16 Metabosyn
  • 17 Am Fam Physician. 2004 Nov 1;70(9):1731-8
  • 18 Coconut Oil Capsules
  • 19 Apple Cider Vinegar Plus
  • 20 Forbes October 1, 2012
  • 21 Self July 25, 2011
  • 22 Healthy Eating SFGate, White Kidney Beans
  • 23 Orthomolecular.org June 14, 2011