Weight Loss: Facts To Fiction

Dietary supplements, yoga, mindfulness, are successfully sold to help weight loss–what are the facts and what is fiction? Read on as many marketing claims are myths with no scientific evidence. Worse, there are some serious safety concerns and potentially negative side effects. This is the topic in the highly regarded National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health’s January 2015 e-newsletter. As a society, our obsession with the body rises along with body weights and circumferences. Are we ready to believe anything for a quick fix?

Acai: No scientific evidence for weight loss or anti-aging properties.

Safety: People allergic to acai or plants in the family should not consume acai.

Bitter orange: Insufficient evidence.

Safety: Avoid taking bitter orange supplements, alone or with caffeine, if there is a heart condition or high blood pressure; or taking medications such MAO inhibitors, often used to treat depression; caffeine, other herbs/supplements used to increase rate. Pregnant women or nursing mothers should avoid products that contain bitter orange. Bitter orange oil used on the skin may increase the risk of sunburn, particularly in light-skinned people.

Ephedra: Little evidence of ephedra’s effectiveness, except for short-term weight loss.

Safety: In 2004, according to the newsletter, “the FDA banned the U.S. sale of dietary supplements containing ephedra after finding that these supplements had an unreasonable risk of injury or illness—particularly cardiovascular complications—and risk of death. Between 1995 and 1997, the FDA received more than 900 reports of possible ephedra toxicity. Serious adverse events such as stroke, heart attack, and sudden death were reported in 37 cases. Using ephedra may worsen many health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and diabetes. Ephedra may cause seizures in otherwise healthy people as well as in people with seizure disorders.” And there are more negative side effects.

Green tea: Insufficient reliable data.

Safety: Drinking moderate amounts as a beverage is safe.  Some people taking concentrated green tea extracts have reported liver problems. Green tea and green tea extracts, containing caffeine, can cause insomnia, anxiety, irritability, upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, or frequent urination in some people.

Hoodia: No evidence.

Safety: Profile unknown.

Mindfulness meditation: Only a few studies on the effects of mindfulness as a component of weight-loss programs–the evidence is intriguing and research is ongoing.

Safety: There are few systematic studies, the methodology is weak, the variability across randomized trails is sufficient to limit the strength of the evidence. Meditation is considered safe for healthy people; however, there is “theoretical concern” that meditation could cause or worsen symptoms in people who have certain psychiatric problems. (I think it is a legitimate concern.)

Yoga: Potentially, therapeutic yoga programs can be frequently effective in promoting weight loss and successful intervention for weight maintenance and prevention of obesity.

Safety: There is a low rate of side effects and the risk of serious injury is “quite low”; however “certain types of stroke as well as pain from nerve damage are among the rare possible side effects of practicing yoga”. Many styles of yoga are low-impact and therefore safe for people when practiced under the guidance of a well-trained instructor.

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