updated 2/6/2004 12:33:19 PM ET 2004-02-06T17:33:19

Weight loss supplements may sound like an easy way to shed pounds, but figuring out if they really work and how safe they are is a lot more complicated.  Does 'natural' mean a product is safe? What about ‘doctor recommended?’ Nutrition Notes columnist Karen Collins explains what these labels really mean and why consumers should watch out.

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Q: Do products that help people lose weight while they sleep really work?
Remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Some of these products contain a diuretic (water pill). When you check your weight in the morning, it’s down. But it’s water weight you’ve lost, not fat. Some products come with instructions to avoid eating three hours before bed. But any related weight loss would be due to a behavior change, not the product.

Studies have shown that eating in the evening does not put on weight any more than eating during the rest of the day. We still burn plenty of calories to keep our vital organs functioning while we sleep. But for many people, eating in the evening doesn’t stem from hunger for body fuel, but from boredom, stress or something to do while watching TV. Any plan that keeps people from eating when they are not hungry is bound to help weight loss.

Q: Is it safe to use a weight-loss product labeled “natural” and “clinically proven?”
There’s simply no way to know. For one thing, “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean “safe” – after all, natural ingredients can have significant effects on the heart and other organs. More importantly, label claims on supplements and weight loss aids are not evaluated by any regulatory agency. That means that manufacturers of these products can make a wide variety of claims (like “clinically proven”) as long as they don’t go so far as to say their product is a cure for a specific disease.

In fact, they do not have to disclose any information about the testing process – the kind of testing used, who and how many were tested, the way results were analyzed – or document their “proof” in any way. That’s why it is best to be skeptical.

Product endorsements from experts may be minority opinions within their profession. An endorsement may come from someone with a financial interest in the product. Even claims that a product is safe cannot be trusted, since they don’t have to be substantiated.

Always read the label closely. Many products with a safety claim still list certain groups who should not use the product, albeit in small print. Products could also contain ingredients that safety warnings have been issued for.

Q: If a weight-loss supplement is advertised as recommended by a doctor or scientific expert, it must be good, right?
Not necessarily. Advertisements don’t prove that the “experts” recommending the product share a view representative of their profession based on sound scientific research.

Support for a product based on one isolated study, or even a single individual’s experience, is not a reliable basis for action. Ads also won’t show what financial incentives might prompt an “expert” to endorse a product.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns that consumers seeking weight loss are spending billions of dollars on products and services that are ineffective and may even pose health dangers. Regular exercise, portion control, and balanced food choices with plenty of vegetables and fruits are the true “secrets” of successful weight control.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

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