Weight Loss Supplements: What Works

Weight Loss Supplements: What Works

Julian Whitaker, MD

You’re exercising regularly and cutting back on unhealthy fats and carbohydrates, but you may also be looking for something extra to nudge that scale toward your goal. There are a whole slew of products out there that claim to help with weight loss. But do they work? Let’s take a look.

Natural Appetite Suppressants

If food cravings, particularly for bread, pasta, and other carbohydrates, are your hot button, 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) may help. I’ve recommended this supplement in the past as a safe, natural therapy for depression because it boosts brain levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in the regulation of mood. Serotonin also affects appetite, and low levels may cause uncontrollable hunger and carbohydrate cravings. Serotonin deficiencies are at their worst during the winter. They are also more common in people with hormonal imbalances, and in those eating low-calorie diets, particularly low-protein diets, which may not provide enough of the amino acid precursors to serotonin.

Rev Up Your Metabolism with Thermogenics

If, despite exercising and cutting back on calories, your weight is still not budging, you might want to try a thermogenic agent. Thermogenesis is the generation of heat in the body from the burning of fat. It stands to reason that increasing thermogenesis is associated with weight loss, and several weight-loss supplements claim to do just that.

The best studied are ephedra and caffeine, which, according to one study, “…promoted body weight and body fat reduction and improved blood lipids without significant adverse events.”

Unfortunately, due to trumped up safety concerns, ephedra has been banned from the market.

Diet Aids in Your Kitchen Cupboards

Although the combination of ephedra and caffeine has a synergism that’s hard to beat, other thermogenic agents have stepped in to fill the ephedra void. Caffeine alone boosts thermogenesis. Whether it is in the form of coffee (a cup contains about 115 mg) or guarana (from the seeds of a South American shrub found in many weight loss supplements), caffeine cuts appetite, speeds metabolism, and burns fat.

Citrus aurantium, known as bitter orange (it’s in marmalade), has also been shown in at least five studies to increase thermogenesis and/or aid in weight loss. According to Harry Preuss, MD, and colleagues at Georgetown University Medical Center, “Citrus aurantium may be the best thermogenic substitute for ephedra.”

Another great-tasting way to turn up the heat is to flavor your food with spices such as cayenne, black pepper, ginger, and turmeric. All of these induce thermogenesis and help metabolize fat—and in levels often used for culinary purposes.

Finally, and possibly most effective, is green tea. You no doubt know about its antioxidant-rich catechins and other polyphenols that protect against cancer, inflammation, and other ills, but you may not know that it also increases thermogenesis. Most of the credit goes to epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), green tea’s most potent polyphenol. EGCG also appears to increase the effectiveness of other weight-loss supplements such as 5-HTP and caffeine. Drinking green tea may help, but for maximum weight-loss benefits, I recommend taking concentrated EGCG supplements.

What Else Is Out There?

There’s Hoodia gordonii, a cactus extract that shows promise as an appetite suppressant, and good old-fashioned fiber, which gets a big thumbs up for helping you feel full and decreasing appetite. Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is also looking good, particularly if you’re trying to get rid of a beer belly—studies have shown that this natural fatty acid reduces body fat, especially in the abdominal area.

Then there are fat and starch blockers, which promise that you can eat all the fats or carbohydrates you want—they will “block” their absorption and flush them right out of your body.

One is chitosan, which is extracted from exterior skeletons of crabs and other crustaceans. Its purveyors claim that it binds to fats in the intestines and ushers them out of the body. According to a study published in Obesity Research, however, its “fat-trapping” effects are negligible and weight loss claims unsubstantiated. I’m not keen on this supplement. Even if it worked, it would endanger your health by attracting and removing fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E and K, and carotenoids.

The other is Phaseolus vulgaris, a starch blocker from white kidney beans that is supposed to inhibit an enzyme required for the absorption of starches so they pass through the body. The unpublished studies I’ve read on this are compelling. However, the introduction of undigested carbohydrates into the large intestine may cause problems. I’ll have to wait for more research before I feel comfortable recommending starch blockers.

Exercise Your Common Sense

These are by no means the only supplements that may—or may not—help with weight loss. As you set your weight-loss goals and strategies, keep one thing in mind: There is no such thing as a magic pill. Effective weight loss requires regular exercise, caloric restriction (restricting carbohydrates at the onset may be easier), social support, and determination. Some supplements discussed above, however, may give you the boost you need to get started on the path to fitness.


  • To learn more, read my book The Whitaker Wellness Weight Loss Program,available in bookstores, online, or by calling (800) 810-6655.
  • To learn more about the Whitaker Wellness Institute Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) Program, click here.
  • To schedule an appointment at Whitaker Wellness, call (866) 944-8253.


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  • Gades, MD. Obes Res. 2003 May;11(5):683-8.
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  • Arbor Clin Nutr Updates. 2003 Nov:174; 1-2.

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