Do Weight Loss Supplements Work?

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If the majority of your health tips are coming from the high-definition mouths of daytime TV doctors, you may want to reconsider your sources. One of America’s favorite celebrity MDs, Mehmet Oz, faced harsh criticism from Chairman Claire McCaskill, D-MO when he recently appeared before the Senate’s consumer protection panel to testify on the marketing of weight loss pills and products. “I get that you do a lot of good on your show,” McCaskill told Oz, before adding, “I don’t get why you need to say this stuff because you know it’s not true.”

The “stuff” McCaskill is referring to is a long list of recommendations the doctor made over the years on his daytime talk show The Dr. Oz Show. During a 2012 episode, the popular host referred to green coffee bean extract as a “magic weight loss cure for every body type,” and his name and likeness have been tied to a variety of other products like raspberry ketones and garcinia cambogia.

Oz owned up to using some “flowery” language in order to “engage viewers,” and admitted, “I am accountable for my role in the proliferation of these scams and I recognize that my enthusiastic language has made the problem worse at times.”

So is it really all a scam?

Though Oz acknowledged his involvement in perpetuating false beliefs about “magic” weight loss products, he didn’t completely back down from his claims. “To not have the conversation about supplements at all, however, would be a disservice to the viewer,” he said.

Though some research has been dedicated to the supplements Oz talked up on his show and website, the evidence hasn’t panned out. According to One Medical Group’s Natasha Withers, DO, “The studies are so weak, and some of these supplements could potentially cause harm,” she says. “Raspberry ketones, for example, have only been studied with vitamin C, so we have no idea whether raspberry ketones by themselves are effective.”

OK, but do any weight loss supplements work?

In a word? No. Withers says, “I don’t recommend weight loss supplements. It’s important to have a discussion with your provider about lifestyle modifications–those have been shown to work and be effective.” So while a balanced diet and regular fitness routine aren’t the sexy, sensational ingredients of must-see TV, those are still the only reliable, proven methods for safely sustaining weight loss. “If you’re motivated and thinking about weight loss, use that motivation and forward momentum to make sustainable changes,” Wither says.

“In general, eating a nutritious, healthy, balanced diet is number one,” she says. “If you’re thinking of taking a supplement and you can get it from food, that’s much safer, and the body will respond better to it.”

But aren’t these supplements “natural”?

Withers says any supplement is a gamble. “It’s an unregulated industry so I’m hesitant to recommend them,” she says. “But many of my patients are taking them whether they admit it or not. So I welcome the discussion and agree that there should be some communication.”

Due in part to celebrity doctors like Oz casually advocating the use of supplements, Withers finds that many patients don’t consider the implications of various pills and potions on their overall health. “I often ask, ‘Do you take medications?’ and many patients say ‘no,’ but it comes out later that they’re taking 10 supplements,” she says. “It’s important to understand that supplements are medications and patients should let their doctors know what they’re taking.”

Is there any safe way to supplement?

Even if you’re not taking supplements expressly for the purpose of shedding pounds, it’s important to know that the products you’re consuming are safe. “It’s not just what you’re taking but which brand you’re taking,” Withers says. “I often ask patients to either bring their supplements into the office or take a picture of the front and back of the bottles and email them to me. Whether the supplements are helpful is one question, but whether the brand has been tested is another.”

Withers recommends that anyone interested in supplements have a frank discussion with a skilled provider. “Speak to someone familiar with supplements–not all doctors are,” she says.

Are there any tools to help pick the right supplements?

Withers also recommends checking out a website called Consumer Lab. “They test popular brands of supplements to ensure that there’s nothing in there that shouldn’t be there, like heavy metals,” she says. “And they also test to ensure that the supplement has what it says it has. Sometimes supplements can have too much of the promised ingredient or not enough. Having Consumer Lab’s approval offers a small amount of regulation.” The Natural Medicine Comprehensive Database is another fee-based resource that lists research studies, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center offers a free database of herbs, botanicals, and other products.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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