Skeptoid PodcastSkeptoid on Facebook   Skeptoid on Twitter   Skeptoid on Stitcher   Skeptoid on Spotify   iTunes   Google Play

Members Portal

Support Us Store


Get a Free Book



The Heavy Cost Of Weight Loss Supplements

by Stephen Propatier

October 27, 2014

Share Tweet Reddit

Donate Weight loss is one of the most lucrative areas of commercial chicanery in the United States. Complicated health issues like obesity and weight loss have no easy answers. That fact doesn't stop the multi-billion dollar weight loss industry from spending millions in marketing trying to convince you that miraculous solutions exist. Most weight-loss products or methods are promoted as "the answer," often making grandiose claims of 97% success rates, promising 90-day money-back guarantees, asserting "clinically proven results" etc. Such marketing can sound very convincing to consumers. Realistically, they are promoting ideas that have no credible science to back them up. Such claims are often misleading, and are occasionally out-and-out lies. And supplements that promise miracle weight loss without dietary changes or exercise, are some of the most problematic and dangerous products for consumers.

Dietary supplements commonly use some variation of the cliché pitch that consumers can "take a pill and let the pounds melt away." This whole concept is fantasy. An effective, safe, weight loss pill that allows you to eat whatever you want and lose weight is a pipe dream. In the extremely unlikely event that anyone ever invents one, it won't be classified as a dietary supplement, to be sure.

A safe, effective, weight-reducing dietary supplement wouldn't be sold on the Internet, or pitched on late-night TV. An effective diet pill would be a license to print money. It would put every other weight-loss company out of business. Consumers don't need to examine every supplement claim individually to come to the conclusion that they don't work. If a weight-loss pill actually existed anywhere, that company or individual would patent it as a drug and sell it practically for whatever they wanted. Investors would line up to invest in it.

This is not speculation: the pharmaceutical industry has spent billions in investment searching for just that product. They have a firm understanding that the first product to get to market will be the winner. A truly revolutionary, safe weight-loss drug is just not there, but that doesn't stop people from spending tremendous amounts of money on a wide variety of useless or dangerous supplements.

According to data from the research firm Marketdata, the US spent $60.5 billion on weight-loss products in 2013. And the business is expanding: 10 years ago, US consumers spent $38 billion for similar products and services. The supplement industry is a big part of that income. In 2001 the General Accounting Office of the United States estimated that Americans spent about $2 billion on weight-loss supplements. Now the NIH estimates that US consumers spend $25 billion dollars on weight-loss supplements. This growth has been astounding, especially since all of these supplements are unproven, and frequently untested. All are being sold with absolutely no regulations for content or effectiveness. In my opinion, this is a shameful example of how the US population can be bought as lab rats for the right price.

Most people feel supplements are safer than drugs because they are "natural." Most scientific skeptics know this logical fallacy well, the Appeal to Nature fallacy. In actuality many things in nature will kill you. Still, for most people nature provokes positive emotional feelings and security. Those positive associations are emotional, not factual, and the facts are a little more disturbing.

In the US there are currently absolutely no regulations on weight-loss products classified as supplements. The exemption comes by way of the usual disclaimer, "These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA." It is a misleading and euphemistic way of saying, "We can put whatever we want on the bottle." Weight loss supplements have no need to show any safety or benefit. There aren't even regulations requiring manufacturers to accurately identify the contents of supplements. It is Russian roulette with your health. There is a reporting system if you have an adverse reaction, and if enough people are harmed the FDA will step in, but that is hardly protective.

And the problems extend beyond using people as a guinea pigs. Unscrupulous individuals have previously been caught knowingly using and re-branding banned supplement ingredients. Again, because of a complete lack of regulation it is hard for the FDA to stop harmful supplements from getting onto the market.

Substances banned from supplements include:

  • Sibutramine—a prescription-only appetite suppressant that is also a controlled substance. It was found in many products at high levels that can increase the incidence and severity of the listed health risks.

  • Fenproporex—a controlled substance that is not approved for marketing in the United States. It can cause arrhythmia (a disorder of your heart rate or rhythm) and possible sudden death.

  • Fluoxetine—a prescription-only antidepressant.

  • Bumetanide and furosemide—potent diuretics (drugs that increase the production of urine) available by prescription only.

  • Cetilistat—an experimental obesity drug not approved for marketing in the United States.

  • Phenytoin—a prescription-only anti-seizure medication.

  • Phenolphthalein—a solution used in chemical experiments and a suspected cancer-causing agent that is not approved for marketing in the United States.

Recent research shows that banned substances are still showing up in supplements.

Researchers from the Cambridge Health Alliance, a healthcare network affiliated with Harvard University, analyzed 27 products (including supplements marketed for weight loss, sexual enhancement, and sports performance enhancement) that were still being sold months after being recalled. They found that two-thirds of the products still contained banned ingredients. The findings are published in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

One product can show just how bad lack of regulation can get. Zi Xiu Tang Bee Pollen Capsule contains the dangerous banned drug sibutramine. Sibutramine, once marketed as the diet drug Meridia, was pulled from the market in 2010 after research linked it to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. It was still being found in supplements in 2012. Despite being recalled by the FDA in 2012, these supplements are still available online. The makers of Zi Xiu Tang Bee Pollen Capsule claim to have changed their proprietary formula to eliminate the drug. This isn't really an improvement since no one knows what is in the supplement. Worse, Internet distributors may still sell you the "old formula" that remains in stock overseas.

Supplement advocates like Dr. Joseph Mercola often denigrate "Big Pharma" and warn about the dangers of drugs, while also cynically selling supplements (drugs) on his website. Dr. Mercola is the proverbial man throwing stones in his glass house. In truth the pharmaceutical industry bears watching. There are standards and regulations that manufacturers must meet, checks and balances that provide greater safety for consumers. And most importantly, there are requirements to disclose and prove contents. It is widely known that the prescription drug Vioxx was deadly for some patients and had to be recalled. Is there an equal number of people who know that weight-loss supplements have banned and deadly substances in them? Based on the sales, I would say probably not.

The weight-loss supplement industry is an example of corporate shenanigans. It's a multi-billion-dollar industry that sells dangerous products. And some of its purveyors knowingly including dangerous substances in their products, placing people at risk.

The common rebuttal from the alternative medicine community is that this particular product contained a drug and that is why it was dangerous, implying that natural products are safer. This is, again, the old fallback position of the Natural Fallacy. Realistically, what does the bee pollen weight-loss supplement really say about supplements as a whole? To me it represents a concerning lack of safety. What we have is a manufacturer who added an effective yet dangerous, and banned, additive to their product. In my opinion, even when they know what they are using they put people knowingly at risk. That is a pretty good indicator that the unknowns in dietary weight-loss supplements are almost certainly unsafe.

It seems like a bad movie: a multi-billion-dollar industry cavalierly takes huge chances with people's safety. It thumbs its nose at the FDA and goes on doing what it wants to do, shilling its products with fallacious and misleading marketing. They claim that their "natural ingredients" offer superior safety, and such claims are supported by powerful and influential political advocates and celebrity endorsements. They ironically, or cynically, point at the pharmaceutical industry and accuse them of exactly the same behavior that they are guilty of, thereby distracting the public from their destructive behavior. In the end, they provide a useless and dangerous weight-loss product.

Dietary weight-loss supplements need regulation, they need to have standards. They need to have defined contents and there needs to be a better method to shut them down when they break the rules. In medicine, decisions about treatments weigh risks against benefits. In this case there is little evidence of benefit and considerable evidence of great risk. In medicine we call that negligence, possibly malpractice. Everywhere else they seem to call it alternative.

In the end, people steer clear of weight-loss supplements. They almost certainly will have no benefit for long-term weight loss, and they will very likely have significant risks. Be smart about losing weight: if it sounds to good to be true, it is. Understand the basics of weight loss, talk to a science-based physician that you trust or has nothing to sell. Don't ever believe that something is better just because it is "natural," whatever that means. Demand higher standards for what you put into your body; it may save your life.


by Stephen Propatier

Share Tweet Reddit

@Skeptoid Media, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit








Want more great stuff like this?

Let us email you a link to each week's new episode. Cancel at any time: