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Weight Loss Supplements—Are They Worth the Cost and Potential Risks? [Updated 6-7-19]

Dr. Mercola

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UPDATE"Coconut Oil, the New Super Food for your Skin"  --


Weight loss supplements are notorious for producing negative publicity for the supplement industry. This specific category of supplements attracts the most unscrupulous of characters. Illegal products that are often adulterated with drugs are a serious problem.


Products that claim to lower weight quickly, often showing dramatic before and after pictures - are easy to spot. I believe most of my readers know these types of claims are too good to be true, but many consumers are deceived by these unreasonable ads of potentially illegal products.

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.


Please note that current regulations make these products illegal, and the FDA and FTC have ramped up enforcement by prosecuting many of these characters.

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 likely encouraged to promote due to successful ratings.

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 serve a critical 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 a garcinia product in my online store—and it was this realization that made me decide not to promote them, over two years ago.


The hyped up promise of these products exaggerated their value, and I didn't feel they fit in well with my general philosophy.   While the product was popular, I was concerned people were spending money on these products instead of higher quality foods, creating unrealistic expectations.

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...


Why I Encourage Supplement Industry to Stop Selling Weight Loss Cures

A web search of the term "weight loss supplements" will deliver more than 57 million results. You get nearly 8 million hits if you customize your search to "magic weight loss supplements." There are even weight loss supplements specifically aimed at children!10 Some of the promotions claim their supplements are "magic;" others have "magic" in their names. Either way, the word "magic" implies that these supplements work like magic with little or no effort on your part. You can just go on living as you have in the past—even though that's what contributed to or caused your weight gain in the first place.

Yet other supplements are advertised as "magic" pills that can help you build a healthy body by increasing muscle mass.11, 12 Here, body builders tend to be the main audience. Despite all the intense work body builders put into building their bodies, many are still looking for that outside "magic" to give them a leg up on the competition... In reality, this approach rarely if ever works. The supplement industry is in the health business—at least theoretically, they should be.

And as proponents of health, it would behoove them to act in the best interest of not just their customers, but also of the nutraceutical industry at large. "Magic" weight loss pills are more or less 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 selling them as well, and to truly embrace proper diet and lifestyle as the answer.

Intermittent fasting, for example, is an incredibly helpful strategy that will produce far better results than any diet pill ever will. The idea that you can just pop a pill and shed excess pounds is Polyanna thinking at its best. In the long run, you can run into problems, especially if the product contains potentially hazardous ingredients—again, most of which tend to be pharmaceuticals.

Most Weight Loss Products Are Stimulants, Like 'Coffee in a Pill'

While surveys13 have determined that use of weight loss supplements is common in the US, studies repeatedly fail to support their efficacy and safety, both in children14 and adults. The most commonly used weight loss supplements15 contain caffeine, ephedra, or ephedra-like substances such as bitter orange to "rev-up" your metabolism. This means you'll either have trouble sleeping and/or you'll experience the inevitable crash after the rev-up—hardly the effects you'd expect from a healthy lifestyle.

These types of stimulants can be particularly dangerous for people who have heart disease, high blood pressure, or are taking blood pressure medication. As just one example, Metabosyn,16 hailed as "the most powerful diet pill reviewed," according to Diet Pill Digest, claims to boost metabolism and reduce appetite. However, it also carries a warning: if you're sensitive to stimulants, don't take it.

It's important to realize that simply loading up on stimulants like caffeine is NOT going to improve your health, even if it helps you lose a few pounds. From my perspective, the cost is just too high—especially in light of the fact that if you eat right and exercise, you will have all the energy you need, and you'll lose weight, without any of the adverse side effects you might experience when taking a stimulant.

You're Paying for the Dream...

A 2012 article in Forbes Magazine17 listed weight loss supplements with top scientific ratings, and the majority of these contain active ingredients that are ideally obtained from whole food. In essence, if you eat right, you don't need a weight loss supplement. Ingredients that have been found to support weight loss that you can get through your diet include:

Coconut oil—When people exchange vegetable oils for virgin coconut oil and begin consuming 2 to 3 tablespoons of coconut oil a day, they often report better thyroid function, an increase in energy and a drop in weight, provided they also avoid foods high in carbohydrates, such as sugars, starches and most grains, until they reach their weight loss goals. Resveratrol—A potent antioxidant, resveratrol is touted for anti-aging, increasing metabolism, and decreasing body fat, including liver fat. While it's found in red wine, the ideal source is whole grapes. Muscadine grapes have the highest concentration of resveratrol in nature because of their extra thick skins and numerous seeds where it is concentrated
Beta-Glucan—A soluble fiber derived from yeasts, mushrooms and algae that is supposed to lower cholesterol and help control diabetes. One excellent whole food source is medicinal mushrooms, especially Reishi, Shiitake, and Maitake, which are notable for their ability to activate/modulate your immune system Glucomannan—Derived from the root of the konjac plant, glucomannan is a fiber and natural thickening agent that has a reputation for weight control.18 Other types of fiber will have similar effects, by making you feel fuller
Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)—Omega-3 fats derived primarily from organic grass-fed beef and dairy products, which can help reduce fat, increase muscle tissue, and prevent cancer DHEA—this precursor hormone is gleaned from yam and soy. It's supposed to help decrease abdominal fat while increasing muscle mass overall in those over age 50. However, you should not take DHEA unless testing identifies a deficiency! Too much DHEA can lead to problems.



Supplementing hormones over a long period of time can trick your body into suspending its own DHEA production, and possibly even shut down your adrenal glands, which can lead to disastrous health consequences

White Kidney Bean Extract—billed as the "new fat-blocker," it's supposed to slow or prevent starch absorption in the digestive tract and help you lose weight. The whole food source is, of course, white kidney beans,19 which are high in fiber, minerals, vitamins, and proteins  

Transparency Is Key for Protecting the Supplement Industry

In my view, weight loss supplements are bad for the entire nutraceutical industry, and promote distrust in dietary supplements on the whole. Recalls for hazardous ingredients—typically pharmaceuticals and/or synthetic agents—also attract attacks from those who would prefer to eliminate the supplement industry, as it's seen as a threat to pharmaceuticals.

It's frustrating to see pro-pharma lobbyists suit up for war every time another weight loss supplement or "energy boosting" pill gets withdrawn from the market. Without fail, they call for more stringent and costly regulations that we don't need. In fact, Dr. Offit and others want supplements to be regulated like drugs, ostensibly to ensure their safety and effectiveness.  They seem to miss the point that the FDA and FTC have all the regulations they need, and often take these products off the market.


The problem is keeping up with the offenders, enforcement has been a challenge.  Not that this is any different than all the knock-off drugs you can find online.   People are purchasing more illegal counterfeit prescription drugs than every before, so the idea that added drug regulations to existing supplement regulations won't do anything but set a barrier for entry into the industry that only pharmaceutical companies can afford.

But are drugs really safer? Prescription medications kill over 100,000 people each year when properly prescribed, while vitamins have not caused a single death in 27 years!20 We do not lack regulation, as noted earlier. The key is enforcement of the regulations in place. Another key, I believe, is transparency.

The supplement industry would do well to be as transparent as possible in every aspect of their manufacturing. From now on, my own products will have videos explaining the formulation and manufacturing processes used, and include video walk-throughs of the plant where my products are made. Below are two such videos. The first shows the RFI manufacturing facility, where many of my nutritional supplements are made. The second explains the Licaps (liquid capsule) technology, and why I've chosen this particular technology for my liquid supplements.


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 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.