The terrible science behind popular weight loss products

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Warning: the study was poor and the data was flawed. Green coffee bean extract was essentially a costly placebo, and six years later, Dr. Oz was found guilty of fraudulent advertising and lost a $5.25 million case.

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But, before you dismiss this as a one-off result of medical quackery, consider the following: According to Marketdata LLC, Americans spent $61 billion on weight-loss goods last year, with almost $2 billion spent on weight-loss pills alone. (That’s nearly three times the worth of all carrots in the United States in 

Hundreds of erroneous “clinical” trials, such as the one Dr. Oz mentioned, lend credence to products like raspberry ketones, yacon syrup, and saffron extract.

Srividya Kidambi tells Inverse that bad data related to this industry “continues to accumulate.” Kidambi is the senior author of a review of dietary supplements and “alternative therapies” published Wednesday in the journal Obesity. He is an associate professor and chair of endocrinology and molecular medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Her research reveals that many trials on these items are skewed, and that those that aren’t can’t establish they help people lose weight.

“It’s fascinating how much people are sold on anecdotal evidence and rely on it instead of the randomized, controlled trials that we have come to anticipate from all other treatments,” Kidambi adds.

THE METHOD BY WHICH THE DISCOVERY WAS MADE — Researchers used a broad search to locate nearly 2,000 full-text publications on dietary supplements, then whittled them down to just randomized, controlled studies on humans — the bare minimum for proving a treatment’s efficacy.

The term “randomized and controlled” refers to a study in which a test group (using the supplement) was compared to a control group (not using the supplement) and the treatment status was allocated at random. This left 315 publications that directly measured fat loss, weight loss, or BMI.

The researchers looked at which treatments or supplements have five or more of these higher-quality randomized trials and rated the research on them:


Vitamin D and calcium




Caffeine or ephedra

Garcinia cambogia and/or hydroxycitrate are two supplements that can help you lose weight.

Green tea is a type of tea that is used

Guar gum is a type of gum that is used to

Linoleic acid that has been conjugated

The mind-body connection (tactics like mindfulness, stress management, hypnosis, meditation, and massage)




WHAT’S NEW — Using a standardized scale, Kidambi and colleagues assessed these papers for bias. The following were some of the most common issues with the skewed studies:

Sample sizes are small.

Testing on a group of people who didn’t look like the people who would buy the product

Not stating whether or not a claimed weight change was statistically significant

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