The truth about weight-loss supplements

Unlike other pharmaceutical drugs, weight-loss supplements do not have to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration to be manufactured by stores, which means that the ingredients listed on the packaging could be misleading. Before taking any supplement, it is important to consult a medical professional in case of any adverse effects that it may cause. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Airman 1st Class Bonnie Grantham/Released)

Unlike other pharmaceutical drugs, weight-loss supplements do not have to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration to be manufactured by stores, which means that the ingredients listed on the packaging could be misleading. Before taking any supplement, it is important to consult a medical professional in case of any adverse effects that it may cause. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Airman 1st Class Bonnie Grantham/Released)

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- Weight-loss supplements claim they offer the solution to all weight management problems. They are quick, easy and can be especially appealing to anyone with a busy life and a desire to trim fat. Can it really be that simple, though?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first over-the-counter weight-loss supplement, Alli, in 2007, and since then the shelves of dietary supplement stores have kept a hefty stock of weight-loss supplements in all shapes and forms: pills, powders, oils, chews, etc.

How weight-loss drugs work, though, depends on the ingredients in them. Some are thermogenic aids, which speed up metabolism; some cause a decrease in appetite by blocking certain nutrients. For example, Alli works by blocking the absorption of some fat ingested into the body.

So, do these supplements really work?

"Not in the long term," says Denae Grove, 319th Medical Operations Squadron health promotion coordinator. "They can in the short term, like any other fad diet. The bad part with dietary supplements or fad diets is whatever you did to lose weight, you're going to have to be willing to do something to maintain that weight loss. It's not a magic potion."

Jennifer Haugen, a clinical dietician and board certified specialist in sports dietetics at Altru Health System in the city of Grand Forks, agrees with Grove.

"There is no easy fix for weight loss," she said.  "Without diet and exercise, weight loss supplements will not produce long-term results.  Weight loss supplements also do not have long-term studies that support use."

Some weight-loss supplements come with unwanted side effects. For instance, a thermogenic is going to work by producing heat, so it may cause side effects including excess sweating and an increased heart rate.

"[Supplements] also typically contain any number of stimulants that could cause gastrointestinal problems (diarrhea, cramping) or an unhealthy rise in blood pressure or heart rate," Haugen said. "There is no 100 percent guarantee that a supplement is safe."

Anyone not willing to commit to a clean, low-fat diet should stay away from fat-blocking supplements such as Alli.

"[Alli] doesn't allow the fat you eat to be absorbed," said Grove. "If it can't be absorbed, it has to go somewhere, so there can be some nasty side effects if you eat high-fat meals."

Another thing to consider when buying a weight-loss supplement is if it's really worth the money.

Supplements are not regulated by the FDA like other pharmaceutical drugs are, so sometimes the product may not actually be what it says it is.

"One question that comes up when you're using a weight-loss supplement of any kind is: is it pure?" said Grove. "Is everything that's in that pill or powder listed on the label and accounted for?"

Lax regulation can also mean manufacturers are not taking extra care when producing a product.

"They could contain banned substances such as anabolic steroids that could be under any number of different names, and are often difficult for the average consumer to identify as potentially harmful," said Haugen.

Other ways to lose weight without spending money on an expensive supplement, according to Haugen, is simple: "Good old diet and exercise."

For those who are adamant about buying and using weight-loss supplements, though, Grove recommends going to Human Performance Resource Center (Operation Supplement Safety) and doing research to find out if what is in that supplement is found to be credible.

Another resource to use while researching is the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, which will rate the supplement being searched on a scale of one to 10, one being the least safe and 10 being the safest.

"If [the supplement] is in the green, then we know there's benefit to this supplement and it will help you," said Grove. "If it's in the yellow, it may be for a couple of reasons: it may be because it does what it says, but it may not be entirely necessary for our bodies, but it's probably not going to harm you, or it could be that it's so new that we don't really have enough evidence to really rate it yet. And then the red ones are risky, at best. Don't take these."

In the end, the decision to use weight-loss supplements is a personal one, but don't expect a change overnight. A good way to stick to a diet plan and lose weight is to take baby steps.

"Instead of thinking, 'tomorrow I'm going to change everything and I'm going to lose 40 pounds in the next month,' think about it as changing smaller habits," she said.

Be sure to contact your PCM before starting any new weight-loss supplement, as some can cause heart failure or heart palpitations.

"Discuss with a medical professional prior to taking any supplement in case of adverse effects," said Haugen. "Also, seek advice from a dietitian who is knowledgeable about supplements and can help provide information on supplements that you are considering, such as side effects or possible harmful ingredients."

For anyone looking to lose weight without having to use weight-loss supplements, Denae Grove will host Healthy Weight Classes June 19, 29 and July 17. Contact her for more information at 747-6112.