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7 Herbal & Natural Supplements for Weight Loss That Don’t Work

By Ann Olson

diet supplements that don't workImagine a diet supplement that can instantly shed pounds and fat, and give you your dream body: firm abs, slim waist, and more. And it’s natural!

In concept, it sounds like a dream come true – until of course you actually use it and discover the supplement does nothing to shrink your waistline, perhaps even producing unpleasant side effects.

Unfortunately, there are many diet and weight loss myths to avoid. Despite what they may claim, most diet supplements do not work, including herbal and all-natural supplements. “Natural” isn’t necessarily an indicator of efficacy here, nor are herbs always safe. And just because a supplement is popular does not mean it’s effective.

Popular Herbal Diet Supplements to Avoid

1. Hoodia Gordonii

The Story
The San Bushmen of Africa reportedly ate hoodia gordonii during long hunting trips to quell their hunger pangs. Their secret stayed in Africa for thousands of years until the 1900s, when Westerners learned of this appetite-killing substance. Since the late ’90s, the British company Phytopharm has been working hard to make hoodia a marketable product.

The Reality
In animal-based studies, hoodia has had some impact on the levels of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which can affect hunger. According to a 2004 study published in the journal “Brain Research,” rats who received brain injections of a compound derived from hoodia gordonii ate less food compared to rats who received a placebo brain injection.

That’s good, right? Yes, it is – if you’re a rat. Unfortunately, these findings cannot conclusively indicate that it would have the same effect in humans. Furthermore, the dosage amount administered to the rats far exceeded what you’d find in a typical hoodia supplement – not to mention that hoodia brain injections currently aren’t being marketed.

To date, there have not been reliable studies conducted on hoodia gordonii’s effects in humans. Sure, a handful of studies do exist, but they were funded by supplement companies with a blatant bias toward selling their product. Moreover, these studies were never put through any sort of peer-review process.

On a more sour note, supplements tested for hoodia gordonii don’t always contain their marketed ingredient. Alkemists Pharmaceuticals has confirmed that 60% of supposed hoodia supplements tested in their lab have failed to show evidence of any hoodia.

The Bottom Line
Not only has the efficacy of hoodia never been reliably proven, but chances are that any hoodia you buy won’t even contain its namesake ingredient. You’re better off spending your money on a gym membership.

hoodia gordonii is extracted from a plant resembling a cactus

2. Citrus Aurantium

The Story
In 2004, after a series of reported deaths and adverse reactions, the FDA pulled ephedra (or ephedrine) from store shelves and requested that diet supplement manufacturers do the same. Up to that point, ephedra had been considered one of the most effective diet ingredients on the market, which left supplement marketers scrambling for a substitute.

The substitute they found, citrus aurantium – better known as “bitter orange” – allowed companies to advertise their diet supplements as ephedra-free. Better yet, they claimed it contained the same fat-fighting benefits as ephedra.

The Reality
Citrus aurantium contains synephrine, which is often compared to ephedrine. However, unlike ephedrine, its efficacy is quite poor. It has not been clinically shown to burn fat or promote weight loss, but it does carry the same range of adverse effects as ephedrine.

According to a 2004 study by Georgetown University, the fat-burning effect of synephrine is largely insignificant, and would only stimulate lipolysis (the breakdown of fat) in high concentrations. Citrus aurantium is mainly used in proprietary formulas in diet supplements, so the actual concentration of synephrine is insignificant.

The Bottom Line
Citrus aurantium does share one characteristic with ephedra: It’s dangerous. Numerous reports have shown that supplements containing citrus aurantium cause heart attacks, strokes, and chest pain, and this doesn’t always include people with preexisting heart conditions.

citrus aurantium

3. Dieter’s Tea

The Story
Some companies manufacture dieting teas, which supposedly do everything from cleansing your body to flushing out fats and toxins. If you’ve been paying attention so far, you’re probably seeing a pattern: Diet supplements that promise big results but don’t deliver on these promises. Well in this case, the product actually does work. Kind of.

The Reality
For short-term weight loss, sipping a cup of dieter’s tea should cause some immediate weight loss. Why? Because most of these teas contain an active ingredient called senna, a plant that produces a stimulant laxative effect in the body. The result? It instantly cleans you out, and the loss of fecal matter and water weight results in temporary weight loss.

The Bottom Line
Remember, senna causes temporary weight loss. Go back to your regular drinking and eating habits and the weight will return, water weight and all. If you’re still tempted to go back for more servings, you risk developing a laxative addiction which, according to clinical studies, can have disastrous effects on your digestive system. Avoid dieter’s tea altogether.

dieter's tea

4. Guggulsterone

The Story
A common misnomer is that something not related to our diet, such as a problematic thyroid, may be responsible for weight gain and, in some cases, morbid obesity. Some diet experts claim that a sluggish thyroid can slow the metabolism, which can cause the pounds to pile on. Guggulsterone was identified in 1984 as a possible ingredient that may enhance thyroid function, which led diet companies to believe it could rev up the metabolism.

The Reality
Aside from a 1984 study identifying guggulsterone as a possible thyroid enhancer, studies actually indicate that this ingredient isn’t very effective for promoting weight loss. A 1999 study reported by Current Therapeutic Research, which tested its effects on overweight people, failed to show any significant changes in fat mass or weight. Clinical trials conducted on guggulsterone have been disappointing, to say the very least.

The Bottom Line
Guggulterone is not a miracle product. If you fear you have thyroid problems, you’re better off seeing your doctor, who can develop a more reliable fix for your thyroid woes.

guggulsterone

5. Chromium Picolinate

The Story
It’s not clear where it got its reputation as a diet aid, but chromium picolinate has had a long and controversial history. Scientists originally believed this key compound could affect insulin sensitivity, which could help people with insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is correlated with increased abdominal weight and obesity, and it’s perhaps these effects that led diet supplement distributors to believe that chromium picolinate was a weight loss aid.

The Reality
Perhaps their hunch was based on good theory, but chromium picolinate’s effects on body weight are simply not supported by science. Studies conducted on women and men of varying weights and sizes have repeatedly failed to show any significant differences in weight after taking a chromium picolinate supplement.

Take a 2007 study reported by the United States Department of Agriculture, which showed that women given chromium picolinate supplements did not produce any discernible differences in body weight. A 1996 study reported by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also showed that it did not significantly impact body composition for men engaged in a strength training program.

The Bottom Line
You’re better off skipping chromium picolinate supplementation in lieu of something more reliable, like eating healthy and exercising regularly.

chromium picolinate

6. Guarana

The Story
If you believe all-natural is better, then you’re probably eager to try a diet supplement containing guarana, an Amazonian plant touted to provide an energy boost. Diet supplements have really stepped up their use of guarana in recent years, and most supplements today contain some form of it. Its energy-yielding content is massive: It can contain up to 4.5% caffeine, twice the amount found in coffee beans.

Furthermore, some have even claimed guarana can promote fat loss by speeding up the metabolism. That’s a natural high that you – and your central nervous system – could get behind.

The Reality
While its benefits on cognitive function and alertness are pretty solid, there isn’t much proof that guarana can boost the metabolism. A 2001 study conducted by the Medical Center of Charlottenlund showed that an herbal preparation containing guarana helped reduce body weigh – but scientists could not say if this was guarana’s doing.  The formula also contained yerba maté and damiana, ingredients that also have been promoted as appetite suppressants.

The Bottom Line
Alone, guarana has not been shown to improve weight loss, so you probably should’t seek your fat loss cure here.  It’s a good energy boost, however, due to its rich caffeine content.

guarana

7. Forskolin

The Story
Derived from the coleus forskohlii plant, forskolin reportedly has fat-burning potential, hastening fat loss while increasing lean muscle tissue. Though the science isn’t conclusive, it hasn’t stopped supplement websites from marketing this herb as an effective weight loss supplement.

The Reality
Of the numerous studies conducted on forskolin, only one study has been peer-reviewed – but even this study isn’t reliable. The study, which was reported in Obesity Research, reported that forskolin supplementation reduced body fat while increasing lean body mass in overweight men.

Unfortunately, the study contained significant flaws. Although the study used a placebo group, both groups did not follow the same diet. They also reported the forskolin users consumed fewer calories compared to the placebo group. That alone makes this study unreliable, as it makes it difficult to ascertain if the fat-burning effects were derived from the forskolin supplement or the lack of calories. Furthermore, the study was funded by Sabinsa Corporation, which manufactures herbal extracts as a trade.

The Bottom Line
Be wary of this supplement – scientific evidence is weak at best. For now, skip forskolin.

forskolin

Final Word

People who diet often look for ways to cut calories and maximize weight loss, and supplementation can play a big role. Yet searching for that perfect pill turns up disappointing and sometimes dangerous results, much to a dieter’s chagrin.

Instead of looking for additional ways to speed up your weight loss progress, consider adopting a different ideology: Be consistent with your diet. There are no shortcuts to weight loss, but being consistent can help you reach your goal weight and stay there.  Sticking to a calorie-controlled program, eating a diet rich in minimally processed foods, and exercising several times a week is an excellent plan for boosting weight loss.  Better yet, it could be safer than swallowing a diet supplement – and cheaper too!

What dieting tips do you usually follow? Are there are supplements that you’ve tried and now avoid?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Ann Olson
Ann Olson is a health writer and full-time frugalista currently living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Saving money is her passion, and she'll cut any corner in the pursuit of becoming passively wealthy. She's also a diet expert and amateur bodybuilder who credits her active lifestyle for keeping her healthy and happy.

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