Over the Counter Weight-loss Supplements: Healthy or Harmful?

Common sense tells us that there is no single pill, drink, or food that will make us “magically” lose weight without needing to restrict caloric intake. But I imagine most of us would love it if one such miracle drug existed, and the marketers of weight-loss supplements know this. They know we’d probably happily drink snake oil and chew crushed bat wings if it helped us drop 10 pounds. Think about how many times have you’ve seen infomercials, watched daytime talk shows, or come across websites that promote over-the-counter weight-loss supplements with claims that include words like “miracle,”“magic,” or “cure.” These words imply that all one has to do is consume said product and, without any apparent effort (i.e., no diet and/or exercise modifications), the individual will lose weight.

Now, there is actual research out there on various natural ingredients that supports their use in weight loss. The problem is the available scientific information on these ingredients varies considerably. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH),1 evidence of the purported benefits of some weight-loss supplements consists of “limited data from animal and laboratory studies, rather than data from human clinical trials.” And for other weight-loss products, the studies supporting a given ingredient’s use are “small, of short duration, and/or of poor quality, limiting the strength of the findings.” That’s not to say that none of these natural ingredients are useful as weight-loss aids. But the NIH says there just hasn’t been enough randomized, controlled, clinical research done on any particular “active” ingredient used in weight loss supplements for us to know for sure whether they are safe and/or effective in humans who are trying to lose weight.1

So, maybe you’re thinking, “Best-case scenario—taking this weight-loss supplement will help me lose weight. Worst-case scenario—it won’t do anything. So, what’s the harm in taking it?” But, effective or not, are weight- loss supplements really safe?

According to the FDA, some of these over-the-counter products can actually cause serious harm. Apparently, the FDA has found hundreds of products marketed as dietary supplements that contain hidden ingredients that are “contained in prescription drugs, unsafe ingredients that were in drugs that have been removed from the market, or compounds that have not been adequately studied in humans.”2

Under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act (as amended by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994), dietary supplement companies do not need FDA approval to market their products. It is the responsibility of the manufacturing companies to ensure that their products are safe and that any claims they make regarding their products are evidence-based. But, according to the FDA, seeing a supplement on the shelf of your favorite vitamin store doesn’t mean that it
is safe or effective. The FDA has investigated numerous weight loss products that have been reported to cause increased blood pressure, heart palpitations (a pounding or racing heart), stroke, seizure, and death, and have removed many of these products from the market.

If you are considering taking a weight loss supplement, the FDA recommends the following:2

• Check with your doctor or a registered dietitian about any nutrients you might need in addition to your regular diet. You should also ask your physician whether any of the ingredients in your supplement of choice might cause or aggravate any health conditions.

• Avoid products with claims that sound too good to be true. In other words, avoid products that:
*Promise a quick fix (e.g., “Lose 10 pounds in one week!”)
*Use the words “guaranteed,” “scientific breakthrough,” “miracle,” “magic,” or “cure”
*Are marketed in a foreign language

*Are marketed through mass e-mails

*Are marketed as herbal alternatives to an FDA-approved drug or as having effects similar to prescription drugs.

• Be cautious if the claims for a product seem exaggerated and/or unrealistic.

• Watch out for extreme claims such as “quick and effective” or “totally safe.”

• Be skeptical about anecdotal information from personal “testimonials” about incredible benefits or results from using a product.

The FDA maintains an online list of what they call “tainted” weight-loss products, which can be found here: https:// Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/ MedicationHealthFraud/ucm234592.htm.

Additionally, the NIH has a fairly comprehensive list of common natural ingredients found in weight-loss dietary supplements, including the available supporting research, which can be found here: WeightLoss-HealthProfessional/.1,2  

In summary, if you are one of the 53 percent of Americans who try to lose weight each year,3 then you know that successful—and healthy—weight loss usually requires effort, and a lot of it. If you do decide to take an over-the-counter weight loss supplement, read the label and carefully consider the ingredients, check the source of the product, talk to your doctor, and take it with a grain of salt (i.e., manage your expectations)—because until that magical miracle cure for excess weight is invented, there is just no way to get around the fact that to lose weight, we must take in less calories than we burn. And to maintain a healthy weight, we must maintain a balance of calorie intake and calorie burn.


  1. National Institutes of Health. Dietary supplements for weight loss. US Department of Health & Human Services site. Updated 1 Nov 2017. https:// Accessed 5 May 2018.
  2. United States Food and Drug Administration. Beware of products promising miracle weight loss. US Department of Health and Human Services site. Updated 5 Jan 2015. ucm246742.htm. Access date: 5 May 2018.
  3. Swift A. Fewer Americans in this decade want to lose weight. Gallup site. 22 Nov 2016. past-decade.aspx. Accessed 5 May 2018. NHR

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