Like many people trying to lose belly fat, you’ve no doubt wondered whether any of the widely advertised weight-loss supplements are worth trying. Perhaps you’ve even plunked down $30 for a bottle of the latest fat burner or hunger buster that’s supposed to melt away pounds. If so, you’re not alone: Americans spend an estimated $1.3 billion each year on these over-the-counter (OTC) products. More than twice as many people take these products than prescription weight-loss drugs, according to a 2006 survey.
What’s wrong with this picture? For starters, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate these OTC products, contrary to widespread belief. Because they are neither food nor drugs, weight-loss aids are classified as dietary supplements, a category developed in 1994 under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. As a result, individual nutrients (vitamins and minerals), herbs, and other plants with supposed medicinal value (phytomedicinals) can be sold without being tested for effectiveness or safety, provided they don’t make any direct health or therapeutic claims. But they can make indirect claims, which have led to many unfounded assertions on labels and advertisements. These claims create confusion and unrealistic expectations for weight loss, not to mention a sense of despair and hopelessness among people who try the products. This can delay or derail efforts that actually do make a difference, like eating less and being physically active.
Safety is another concern. Manufacturers of these products aren’t required to follow strict quality-control procedures, so products may contain much more or much less of the alleged active ingredients. In effect, you’re using these products at your own risk. At best, all you’ll have lost is some money. At worst, you could lose your life or develop a serious side effect such as a heart attack or stroke. That’s what happened to a number of people who took ephedra (Ma huang), a Chinese herb widely promoted for fat loss and boosting energy. The government documented ninetytwo serious events caused by ephedra, including heart attack, stroke, seizures, and death. Although the FDA subsequently banned the sale of ephedra in 2004, the agency can’t take a product off the market unless it’s found to be dangerous. And because the FDA can’t test every one of the thousands of supplements on the market, most will not be banned. In fact, supplements containing ephedra-like compounds (such as ephedrine, norephedrine, and methylephedrine) remain widely available, often in combination with other stimulants such as caffeine. The bottom line: don’t waste your money or faith on dietary supplements for weight loss.