Weight-Loss Supplements: All Chaff, No Wheat?

Do Weight Loss Supplements Work?

Crystal M. Glassy, DO, MPH; David B. Kilgore, MD


June 02, 2015

In This Article

The Quest for Aids to Lose Weight

Being overweight or obese has profound implications on health. One third of Americans are overweight and a further one third are obese, for a combined prevalence of 68%.[1] Results of a national survey published in 2008 found that 33.9% of adults who had made a serious weight-loss attempt had reported using a dietary supplement.[2] Weight-loss supplements remain a booming industry in the United States, with overall retail sales in 2009 of 26.9 billion.[3]

Although weight-loss supplements are popular, consumers hold many misconceptions about their safety and efficacy. Because these products are marketed as "natural," many patients interpret this to mean that they are safe, and often do not share with their providers the fact that they are using such supplements. However, product quality remains variable and uncertain.[4] Pharmaceutical adulterants pose an additional, and significant, risk. Laxatives, diuretics, drugs to mask the effects of stimulants (eg, propranolol), thyroid hormones, and appetite suppressants (such as sibutramine) have all been found as adulterants in weight-loss products.[5] A recent study of 26 herbal weight-loss formulations found three of the 26 to have an undeclared diuretic, and five of the 26 to have a declared diuretic listed on the formulation.[6]

Not all weight-loss supplements are dangerous. In fact, some supplements show promise for weight loss or weight maintenance. However, given the breadth of products available to consumers, and heterogeneity among products, it is important for providers to be aware of the existing science on weight-loss supplementation. This review will explore popular weight-loss supplements, including their mechanism of action, efficacy, and commonly observed side effects.


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