With today’s largely sedentary lifestyles, increased consumption of fast food, and busy schedules leaving little to no time for exercise, being overweight is becoming common. But being overweight or obese is a major risk factor for cardiovascular diseases and other health complications. So, to reduce weight, people are increasingly turning to weight-loss pills, which are now widely being marketed.
These pills are considered ‘supplements’, which means they do not have to undergo rigorous testing for efficacy and safety, unlike standard medicines. But whether they really work or not remains to be seen.
Let us examine the seven most common ingredients found in weight-loss pills in India: Garcinia cambogia, Agnimantha, green tea extract, green coffee extract, forskolin, bitter orange, and capsicum/chilli extract.
Garcinia cambogia extract (GCE):
Also known as brindleberry, vrikshamla, Malabar tamarind, and kudam puli, GCE is one of the most common ingredients of weight-loss supplements. Most recent studies have found that it has little or no weight loss benefit. On the other hand, people taking GCE-based supplements have been known to suffer from side effects or toxic effects like liver failure and increased inflammation.
Agnimantha (Clerodendrum phlomidis):
Some herbal formulations claim that Agnimantha is effective for weight loss. However, the scientific data behind this is weak and controversial [3, 4]. Agnimantha may have other benefits, but its weight-loss effects have not been proven.
Green tea and green coffee extracts:
Green tea and/or green coffee extracts are common ingredients of weight-loss supplements, with or without caffeine. In the past 10 years, hundreds of studies have been published concerning their weight-loss effects [5-7]. Yet, their effects and results continue to be questionable.
It is true that tea and coffee (and their extracts) have antioxidant and/or anti-inflammatory properties. They also increase metabolism, which may result in weight loss to a degree. But these effects are also seen by coffee and green tea drinks. Moreover, there have been cases of liver toxicity with green tea supplements . Until we have stronger evidence, spending on green tea/coffee extract-based supplements seems unwise; you can simply brew them directly.
Forskolin (Coleus forskohlii) is widely promoted as a weight-loss product, with the evidence-based mainly on studies conducted on rodents. Human studies, however, have not found any significant results supporting weight loss. [8, 9]
Bitter orange extracts have multiple compounds, especially phytochemicals, that are beneficial. It may potentially aid weight-loss, but again, the main supportive studies are conducted on rats and mice. Human trials have not shown it to be useful [8, 9].
Capsicum/chilli extract or capsaicin:
Supplements of chilli/capsicum extract are touted as a potential weight-loss tool. Experimental studies show promise, but human trials have not shown comparable results. However, one effect of consuming this is that people tend to eat slightly less, which then may contribute to some weight loss .
Summary of the problems with weight-loss pills or supplements:
- Little or no scientific evidence of their effectiveness.
- Many studies have been done on rats and mice, which cannot be directly applied to humans.
- Cost-benefit analysis: Some supplements may reduce 2 kg of weight over three months of daily intake, but this does not justify the cost. Eating the right kind of food, intermittent fasting and good physical activity may be healthier ways to try and lose weight.
- Many of the pills have side effects, especially liver toxicity. This may be due to either the extracts (active ingredients) themselves or the formulation.
Finally, losing weight alone is not enough. You need to maintain the loss and lead a healthy lifestyle as a whole. If you continue to eat fried food and refined flour (maida), you can have high cholesterol or diabetes even when your weight is not very high. In light of the current scientific evidence, the best strategy is to adopt a more healthy and holistic approach that involves a change in lifestyle and lasts for a longer time, and avoid quick fixes.
- Corey R, Werner K, Singer A, Moss A, Smith M, Noelting J, Rakela J. Acute liver failure associated with Garcinia cambogia use. Annals of hepatology. 2016 Feb 15;15(1):123-6.
- Lunsford KE, Bodzin AS, Reino DC, Wang HL, Busuttil RW. Dangerous dietary supplements: Garcinia cambogia-associated hepatic failure requiring transplantation. World journal of gastroenterology. 2016 Dec 7;22(45):10071.
- Chidrawar VR, Patel KN, Shiromwar SS, Kshirsagar AD. Exploiting anti-obesity mechanism of Clerodendrum phlomidis against two different models of rodents. International Journal of Green Pharmacy (Medknow Publications & Media Pvt. Ltd.). 2011 Jul 1;5(3).
- Pattonder RK, Chandola HM, Vyas SN. Clinical efficacy of Shilajatu (Asphaltum) processed with Agnimantha (Clerodendrum phlomidis Linn.) in Sthaulya (obesity). Ayu. 2011 Oct;32(4):526.
- Johnson R, Bryant S, Huntley AL. Green tea and green tea catechin extracts: an overview of the clinical evidence. Maturitas. 2012 Dec 1;73(4):280-7.
- Chen IJ, Liu CY, Chiu JP, Hsu CH. Therapeutic effect of high-dose green tea extract on weight reduction: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Clinical Nutrition. 2016 Jun 1;35(3):592-9.
- Rains TM, Agarwal S, Maki KC. Antiobesity effects of green tea catechins: a mechanistic review. The Journal of nutritional biochemistry. 2011 Jan 1;22(1):1-7.
- Farrington R, Musgrave IF, Byard RW. Evidence for the efficacy and safety of herbal weight loss preparations. Journal of integrative medicine. 2019 Jan 30.
- Barrea L, Altieri B, Polese B, De Conno B, Muscogiuri G, Colao A, Savastano S. Nutritionist and obesity: brief overview on efficacy, safety, and drug interactions of the main weight-loss dietary supplements. International Journal of Obesity Supplements. 2019 Apr 12:1.