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Is this weight loss product too good to be true?

The worst time to order a miracle cure is when you're feeling desperate. You're likely to be disappointed in the results. I've watched this happen with friends and patients over the years with complicated medical problems. And I've seen it over and over again with people looking for that magic bullet to help them lose weight.

We're particularly vulnerable to wild claims each year after any New Year's resolutions to exercise more and eat better have been broken. That's when people look for a quick fix. I received news about one recently that I'd like to warn you about. It's an expensive weight loss product with little evidence to show that it works.

The product sounds remarkable!

The literature said I could lose weight without changing what I ate or exercising. I read the information carefully several times, but I could find no list of ingredients. What was this miracle substance?

So I put on my "Health Detective" hat and went to the Internet to do a quick search, just to satisfy my curiosity. Silly me. Two hours later, I still had no information either on the product's ingredients, the medical doctor who sent me the mailing, or the chiropractor who is the clinical director of this doctor's weight loss clinic.

Further searches (sometimes I just can't stop!) led me to letters from people who had also tried to track down this doctor, his clinic, and the product. One woman was on vacation in a nearby town and was so impressed with the information she'd received that she decided to stop and meet the doctor behind the product.

His address was a post office box. The attendant told this woman that she'd heard a lot of complaints about the product and knew of people who wanted their money back. Good luck!

I did eventually manage to find the name of the clinic that sold this weight-loss product and sent them a request for their ingredients and for copies of the studies they claimed had been done on their products. It turns out that the main ingredient in this weight loss pill is chitosan, made from shellfish skeletons.

Now, bear with me, because this is an important point. The product's website says this product is "100% natural, safe...." But because chitosan is made from shellfish shells, the e-mail from someone at the clinic warned that people allergic to shellfish shouldn't take it. Doesn't sound 100% safe to me! And shouldn't this in formation be in their literature and on their website?

The other ingredients for this miracle weight-loss product are gelatin, maltodextrin (a simple sugar), and silicon dioxide (silica, found in quartz and beach sand). There's nothing here that indicates the formula has superior qualities to help you lose weight.

Chitosan and weight loss--a match or a miss?

Chitosan has been used to help lower cholesterol, and there are some studies that suggest it does. But can it really help with weight loss? An Australian randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, says it doesn't.

The researchers gave three grams of chitosan a day to 125 overweight people for six months. An equal amount took a placebo. While the people taking chitosan did lose weight, compared with those on a placebo, the amount of weight they lost was negligible. The researchers concluded that the "chitosan treatment did not result in a clinically significant loss of body weight compared with placebo."

Here's the theory behind the supplement, and why some people are selling it as a miracle cure: Chitosan binds to fats and prevents them from being digested and absorbed. The trouble is, you need a huge amount for it to do much good.

I located a study that said the amount of fat being blocked by a daily dose of chitosan was insignificant. This study claims you would have to take 10 capsules of chitosan to increase fat excretion--and block its absorption--by just one gram! That's right! Ten capsules of this product save you nine calories!

To be fair, I did find one study showing that taking six capsules of chitosan resulted in a three-pound weight loss over two months. The women all ate a diet where more than 30 percent of their calories were from fat. The company that sells the product funded this study. A one-month supply of this product will set you back $60 plus shipping costs.

Looking further, three other studies found no significant difference in weight loss in people who used chitosan over those who took a placebo.

(By the way, I discounted a study on weight loss and chitosan that appeared in a toxicology journal, because it wasn't a journal on weight loss or nutrition that's been reviewed by experts in the field.)

If chitosan does block fat absorption, it blocks oil-soluble vitamins A and E as well. In a rat study, it also blocked the absorption of calcium, magnesium, and iron.

Bottom line

We don't have enough information to say that chitosan is both safe and effective as a weight-loss supplement. It certainly isn't a cost-effective method.

The British Advertising Standards Authority agrees. It has asked British advertisers of products containing chitosan to state that this ingredient hasn't been proven to help lose weight. I guess they don't consider the study paid for by a company selling chitosan to be sufficient proof.

In this country, the FDA keeps warning companies to stop their overblown--and inaccurate--claims for chitosan and weight control. But it seems that as soon as one company stops selling chitosan for weight loss, another starts up.

So here's my suggestion. Don't buy anything when you're feeling desperate. Take your time to research it, first. When something sounds too good to be true, it often is. Read advertising copy carefully before you buy. Look at the ingredients and make sure there are good, sound, scientific studies, preferably on humans, to back up any claims that are being made.

Better still, buy only from reputable companies with easy-to-find phone numbers for customer service. All supplements I talk about in Women's Health Letter have been carefully scrutinized, whether they're sold through this newsletter, by mail, or in health food stores. I stand behind every supplement I mention. Some of them can even help promote weight loss. But not if you eat a diet high in fats and refined carbohydrates and don't exercise.

Barrett, Stephen, MD, "Is chitosan a 'fat magnet'?" Quackwatch, Inc, (

Mhurchu, C. Ni, et al. "The effect of the dietary supplement, Chitosan, on body weight: a randomized controlled trial in 250 overweight and obese adults," International Journal of Obesity, September 2004.

Schiller, R.N., MS, CN, et al. "A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study examining the effects of a rapidly soluble chitosan dietary supplement on weight loss and body composition in overweight and mildly obese individuals," Journal of the Amer Nutrac Assn, Spring 2001.
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Publication:Women's Health Letter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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