Herbs for weight loss don’t work

May 19, 2021

Categories: Skepticism , Tags: Alternative Medicine, Herbal Remedies

A recent major report (opens new window) into herbs and supplements for weight loss has concluded that they don’t work, and that not enough is known about their safety. Erica Bessell, the lead author from the University of Sydney, points out that in many countries no evidence is needed that these products actually work, and of course many companies are happy to exploit that failing and sell a wide variety of unproven products to buyers who hope for a simple solution to the hard problem of controlling their weight.

The report is a systematic review of RCTs (Randomised Controlled Trials), and covered 54 trials that were of high enough quality to be included. There was a wide variety of products that had used in the various trials, including:

green tea, mangosteen, white kidney bean, African mango, veld grape, licorice root, chitosan, glucomannan and fructans.

Erica Bessell said of her analysis:

"Our rigorous assessment of the best available evidence finds that there is insufficient evidence to recommend these supplements for weight loss. Even though most supplements appear safe for short-term consumption, they are not going to provide weight loss that is clinically meaningful."

Sadly, despite this lack of evidence, the global market for alternative weight loss products is estimated to be worth NZ $57 billion. That’s a lot of money being spent on stuff that doesn’t work - and of course this is just one medical issue. Sadly there are people out there who are happy to sell you worthless pills to “treat” pretty much any medical condition, from migraines to cancer.

Speaking of which, I went to a talk last week about natural cancer cures - hosted by the owner of a clinic called Natune Heal in Wellington. I heard a few tired old ideas that natural health practitioners roll out: disease is dis-ease, your chakras need to be properly managed, cancer thrives in an acidic body, everything modern (including power points, wifi and microwaves) causes cancer. And then there was some new stuff, like that emotions are the root cause of all cancers, and that emotion is really e-motion: “energy-in-motion”. We heard about how the cells in our body are supposed to allow free flow of this energy, but that emotional issues like anger can stop the flow and starve cells of their energy - and somehow this causes cancer. All of this was devoid of evidence, but thankfully he did sell a range of teas that could help us.

Of note was that we were warned that fatty fast foods like beef burgers and fries, as well as alcohol, can cause cancer. So after the event my skeptical companions and I retired to the pub and purchased burgers and beers. While we were there we pulled out our laptops and submitted ASA complaints about just some of the unproven medical claims on the clinic’s website.