Dissecting the Promises

If you scroll through the 73+ million search results for “weight loss pills,” you will find yourself bombarded with phrases like,

“Guaranteed to help you lose weight!”

“Burn 278 more calories a day without exercising!” 

“Boost your metabolism and energy.”

“Pharmaceutical quality, made in an FDA registered laboratory!”

“Average of 3-5 lbs weight loss per week!”

When you read over these claims, just about every weight loss pill can seem like the answer to your fat-loss dreams.  Obviously, weight loss isn’t as simple as taking a pill every day or the world wouldn’t be dealing with a growing obesity epidemic right now.  Yet, there are some products available which really can help give you an extra boost to your weight loss efforts.  So, how do you tell which products really work and which do not?

The biggest problem with choosing weight loss supplements is that they are not regulated by the FDA in the same way as prescription drugs.  In order for a prescription drug to get approval, it has to undergo a thorough inspection process and met stringent regulations for efficacy and safety.  Supplements, on the other hand, can be sold with virtually no government oversight whatsoever.

Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), the supplement’s manufacturer is responsible for making sure that the product is safe.  The FDA only steps in if the supplement shows to be unsafe after it has been on the market.  The main rule under the DSHEA is that supplements are not allowed to advertise themselves with false or misleading information.  However, the definition of what is “false” and “misleading” is often blurry.  For example, a weight loss pill can claim that it is “clinically proven” to work so long as one of its ingredients has shown some positive results in any clinical test – even if all other tests show otherwise.

According to an article at msnbc, 2/3 of Americans believe that the FDA requires supplements to list safety information like side effects and that the products must also be approved for their use.  Because of this misconception, it is easy to understand how so many people are drawn in by the advertising promises of weight loss pills.

To make matters worse, many weight loss supplements actually contain unlisted harmful ingredients, including prescription drugs.  The FDA has issued warnings to consumers to be wary of tainted products and that these products could even cause your death. Some studies have even shown that some of the key ingredients listed on bottles may not even be in the product at all.

When choosing a weight loss supplement, the FDA advises you to watch out for those too-good-to-be-true claims.  They also advice you to be wary of any weight loss products which are “guaranteed” to work.  Guarantees are often just advertising tactics to get people to gain trust in a product so they will purchase it.  The fine print of the guarantee usually contains some sort of catch, such as paying high shipping costs or having only a couple days to return the product.  Even the catch-free guarantees don’t mean you are getting a quality product as most consumers don’t bother to ask for their money back and the company will profit. Consumers should also be wary of any weight loss product which is manufactured abroad.  Watch out for labels which are in foreign languages or have spelling errors.

If you do find a weight loss supplement which seems legitimate, you should still take some time to do your own research.  You can type in the name of an ingredient into search engines like Google Scholar to easily find real research and studies about the substance.  It is also important that you fully understand how the supplement is supposed to work.  If you opting for an appetite suppressant but not prone to overeating, then the supplement probably isn’t going to help you much – no matter how effective it really is.

It is also important to note that several weight loss supplements may interfere with medications that have been prescribed to you by your doctor. There are several unsafe interactions between medications and supplements, so it is important to let your doctor know when you start taken any supplement.

The bottom line on weight loss supplements is that they are mostly hype.  Even if you do find an effective weight loss supplement, it isn’t going to be a magic bullet solution.  The best way to lose weight is still good old-fashioned exercise, a balanced diet, and healthy lifestyle choices.


Fernstrom, Madelyn, PhD, CNS. “Do weight-loss supplements work?” Today.msnbc.msn.com. MSNBC. 21 Nov 2006. Web.

“Dietary Supplements.” FDA.gov. Food and Drug Administration. 10 June 2011. Web.


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