The Annual Bikini Bamboozle Begins

Everywhere you look, photoshopped thighs prance along pristine beaches in ads. Weight loss supplements promise you the ability to sport a string bikini in only weeks. Some of us have gotten resistant to the annual bikini con (heck, without lighting crews, spray-on foundation, and post-photo pixelated perfecting, no one looks good in a string bikini), so the weight loss promises are spreading to other venues: Lose Weight For Your Wedding! As we all get wiser and wiser, my belief is these con artists marketers will run out of events for crash dieting. Inevitably, we’ll be reading ads that say Lose Weight For Your Coffin!

There are so many products – hoodia, orlistat, white kidney bean extract, yohimbine…and so on and so on. Do any of these over-the-counter weight loss supplements work? A lot of them aren’t exactly cheap either. Is there a hidden cost to your health that doesn’t show up on that receipt? Here’s a nice review of all the data put together by the good people at Medscape – check it out for the in-depth, gritty stats. But if you want just the review’s low-down, I’ve summarized the take-home messages for you (including 30-day cost) with my own personal interpretation of the results. At the end, I’ve listed things that DO work.

Cost here is from the article, which used, and I’ve extrapolated to 30 days of maximum dose, not including tax/shipping/handling.

Name: Orlistat (60mg) Cost for thirty days: Starter pack available online for $81.85 – may be more than one month’s worth; Reported health risk: gastrointestinal side effects, otherwise known as “anal leakage” – what marketing idiot thought “anal leakage” was better than “incontinence”? Proven to work? Only modest results (5% of body weight), and you must eat a very low-fat diet or the dreaded GI side effects occur; Doc Gurley summary: high cost of product, high social cost of potential anal embarrassment, not great results.

Name: bitter orange, also known as sour orange, Seville orange, or zhi shi Cost for thirty days: Hard to determine since used in weight loss mixes, which run around $30/month; Reported health risk: elevated blood pressure and heart rate – reports of ischemic colitis in a woman, angina in a man and a heart attack in a woman; Proven to work? lacks data to prove it works – one study showed approx 3 pound weight loss; Doc Gurley summary: could kill you, doesn’t work.

Name: chitosan Cost for thirty days: Used in weight loss mixes, usually around $30/month; Reported health risk: no serious adverse events listed, except to your wallet; Proven to work? Claims to block fat – all studies show it doesn’t produce weight loss, or block fat; Doc Gurley summary: bogus, but probably won’t kill you.

Name: chromium Cost for thirty days: Used in mixes; Reported health risk: blood abnormalities, liver dysfunction and renal failure in one woman, toxic hepatitis in another; Proven to work? Two studies showed no effect at all; one self-report/questionnaire study showed less weight gain over 10 years in people taking multivitamins, B6, B12 and chromium; chromium supplement manufacturer cited by US Federal Trade Commission that it made unsubstantiated efficacy and safety claims in its advertisements; Doc Gurley summary: probably bogus, possibly could kill you.

Name: conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), Cost for thirty days: $15.39, Reported health risk: no significant ones reported; Proven to work? Two studies (one a year-long study) showed no effect at all in weight loss, possibly some effect on “feelings of fullness” in one; Doc Gurley summary: bogus. Spend your $15 on fifteen rewards, one for each time you go for a walk or workout. Maybe fifteen downloaded-songs. Or fifteen lottery tickets. Or fifteen $1 seed packs for your garden. You get the idea.

Name: fiber, Cost for thirty days: varies, but weight loss supplements are an expensive approach to getting fiber; Reported health risk: no significant ones reported; Proven to work? Three studies cited showed moderate effect in weight loss, plus good appetite suppression; Doc Gurley summary: fiber has mega health benefits unrelated to weight loss – with more profound results in people of color. Lots of studies show fiber suppresses appetite and blunts insulin spikes. Go for it, but think about increasing your diet’s whole grains instead of buying supplements.

Name: green tea extract, Cost for thirty days: $26.36, Reported health risk: one report of severe liver damage requiring transplant; Proven to work? One study showed weight loss that was promptly regained; another showed no benefit or effect; Doc Gurley summary: You want a cup of green tea? Have one, but don’t take mega-extract doses and don’t expect to lose weight from it alone.

Name: guar gum from the Indian cluster bean, Cost for thirty days: Used in mixes; Reported health risk: flatulence, diarrhea and nausea; Proven to work? not so far – one study showed no difference; Doc Gurley summary: Beans beans the magical fruit, the more you eat, the more you toot.

Name: guarana – “contains caffeine, tannins, resins, lipids, saponin, starch, and coloring agents. Guarana has been studied mostly as an herbal blend of various natural products, including Ma Huang, which contains ephedra” – and ephedra is banned in this country due to serious adverse effects; Cost for thirty days: varies, used in many mixes, Reported health risk: “a number of adverse events have been reported with guarana, including irritability, heart palpitations, anxiety, and other central nervous system events;” Proven to work? one study using a combination product, showed moderate weight loss; Doc Gurley summary: No good data, bad adverse side effects. Better try something else.

Name: hoodia – from a South African cactus-like bush; Cost for thirty days: $59.98; Reported health risk: none so far, Proven to work? Rats responded in one study. In humans, two unpublished studies claim moderate results; Doc Gurley summary: Two rumors unpublished studies are all we’ve got here folks – someone’s making a mint off this one.

Name: hydroxycitric acid – a “fat burner”; Cost for thirty days: another weight loss mix ingredient; Reported health risk: no significant ones reported so far; Proven to work? two studies showed no benefit, one study showed a not-significant weight loss benefit; Doc Gurley summary: Probably won’t kill you; probably won’t work.

Name: L-carnitine; Cost for thirty days: not listed; Reported health risk: nausea, diarrhea; Proven to work? one study showed no effect; Doc Gurley summary: bogus

Name: natural black licorice; Cost for thirty days: if you buy it at the movie theater the cost is greater than the GDP of most third world countries; Reported health risk: “adverse effects on sodium and water balance and the risk of raising blood pressure;” Proven to work? one study showed weight gain, probably due to water/sodium retention; Doc Gurley summary: Bad for you, and – yuck. I hate licorice. Avoid this one.

Name: usnic acid – found as “active” ingredient in weight loss mixes; Cost for thirty days: another substance thrown into mixes; Reported health risk: two cases of fulminant liver failure requiring transplant in young people, plus one case of submassive hepatic necrosis; Proven to work? no; Doc Gurley summary: Bad for you, and no evidence it works. Yikes.

Name: white kidney bean extract; Cost for thirty days: “1-2 capsules with a starchy carbohydrate.” If you eat a carb each meal (forget snacks), this can get pricey: $39.54; Reported health risk: none so far; Proven to work? two well-designed small studies – one showed non-significant benefit, the other showed statistically significant differences in almost all measures; Doc Gurley summary: Hmm. Sounds suspiciously promising – but then again, we are talking good old high-fiber beans here, aren’t we?

Name: willow bark extract; Cost for thirty days: not listed; Reported health risk: same source as aspirin – one report of serious allergic reaction in a person with aspirin allergy; Proven to work? This one’s at the profiteering rumor theory stage only; Doc Gurley summary: No proven benefit. Avoid this like the plague if you have problems with aspirin.

Name: yohimbine; Cost for thirty days: $63.98; Reported health risk: “hypertension, anxiety, and agitation;” Proven to work? one study showed no benefit, second small study showed some benefit but adverse effects; Doc Gurley summary: Serious adverse effects, unimpressive results.

Doc Gurley Bikini Bottom (heh) Line:

Orlistat may help you lose weight (if you can afford it), mostly (in my opinion) because it will punish you with anal leakage if you eat too much fat – that’s a harsh punishment. Eating small amounts of whole grains/fiber at each meal ia an excellent way to get a craving appetite under control. White kidney bean extract might help, and, at this time, seems safe. Always try to find a pure ingredient – do not take random mixes of substances (many of which you really don’t want). Be sure to tell your doctor about all supplements and only take as directed. Change to drinking water only (“water” includes unsweetened, unmilked tea and coffee). Americans drink as much as 450 extra calories a day – which adds up to 23 pounds a year (yikes!). Don’t drink diet “sugar-substitute” drinks, either – recent data shows these may also contribute to weight gain and health problems. Always eat breakfast, even a small, healthy amount – breakfast revs your metabolism out of starvation mode. Buy smaller plates and bowls. We eat what’s put in front of us, and then feel about the same fullness afterward. A smaller plate is a freebie when it comes to portion control. Take a multivitamin plus 1,000 units a day of vitamin D. Be kind to yourself. Think about nurturing yourself with health. Walk. Walk. Walk. Pace yourself – you’re in this for the long haul – for your kids, your work, your grandkids – not just “bikini season.” We want you around and kicking for a long time. You go, friend.

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