As inevitable as a new year rolling around is the rash of products, articles, DVDs, “pull out and keep cards”, posters and deals to help us all with one of the most common New Year’s resolutions – losing weight. All media is a-glow with the latest diet, supplement or fitness regime, and with the promise of this is the one that will work.
As someone who has battled with my weight over the last seven or eight years I know how beguiling all of these promises can be. However many times we are told that the equation is (relatively) simple, calories burnt > calories consumed = weight loss, you still hold out hope that there will be a magic pill, food combination or detox that will give you that quick fix. Even if it not a quick fix something that could get you kick started or help you one the way.
Having worked in a health food shop when I first attempted to lose weight, I quite steadily worked my way through the “Diet and Weight Loss” section. From Chromium to Zotrim – I tried them all, with no noticeable effects. It was only when I went to Weight Watchers that I actually lost weight. Now any article I write should not be read as a promo for WW but should be taken as an example of a calorie controlled diet. For me, without the accountability of going for the weigh in once a week, I have little or no self-control regarding food. I just love to eat!
This year two supplements that are new to me caught my eye, namely SlimSticks and African Mango.
The first one is very easy to unpick. SlimSticks are basically a controlled portion of low calorie high fibre food. Containing palm and oat oil they offer very little as way of nutrition, not to mention how strongly some people feel about the farming of palm oil… This conceit of fibre for appetite suppression is by no means new, in fact I myself tried fibre tablets in the past, and their results can be variable and can result in some gastrointestinal upset for some people. They can work as a mild appetite suppressant by allowing you to eat something that should make you feel fuller for longer than say a sugary snack. The same effect could be garnered by incorporating such high fibre complex carbohydrate into the overall diet, and would have the added benefit of having higher nutritional value. For those people who eat out of boredom or a more emotional response these would have little effect as studies have shown that people will consume a larger amount of a food if they believe it to be a low calorie option. Overall using a product such as these sticks does little to amend eating behaviour that results in being overweight, with the result that once “normal” eating is resumed the weight will in all likelihood be regained.
African Mango is another ball game however. A fruit that is found in Cameroon it has joined the ranks of being a “wonder food”. Those of you who listen to the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast or read Dr Novella et al’s excellent blog will already regard the name Dr Oz with the utmost suspicion. This product is just one of the many that Dr Oz and his website promote as wonder supplement that not only helps you lose weight but has numerous other beneficial properties such as lowing cholesterol and rids your body of the ever present “toxins”. It is sold as being an ancient remedy, well known for its manifold health properties whilst also being the new celebrity diet – the ad on my Facebook home page told me Kate Winslet swore by it.
Apart from these being two very obvious logical fallacies – arguments from antiquity and popularity these are claims that are regularly put to several supplements a year. When I worked in the health food shop it was the wonders of Acai and Green Coffee for example. All of these supplements purport to be “super” foods full of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, boosting your metabolism (a “thermogenic agent”), decreasing fat absorption from food (promoting mal-absorption) and suppressing your appetite due to the natural high fibre. The concepts of thermogenic, mal-absorptive supplements are well documented on the Quarkwatch website here.
However some websites promoting African Mango have claimed you don’t even need to change your diet for it to have an effect! Even better – now this is really a magic pill. I can still eat brie, demolish all the Christmas chocolate left in the house and drink all the Baileys I like and still lose weight. If that doesn’t send up warning flares for people I don’t know what would. Even doctors prescribing medications designed and proven to aid in weight loss can’t make such assured claims.
Again then we are back to the idea of fruit fibre being one of magic properties of this African Mango. Evidence does show the health benefits of such fibre, not to mention how we should all be aiming for at least five different coloured fruits and vegetables every day but how do you get the same benefits from a pill version? Well you don’t. Part of the benefit is eating the fresh fruit itself, your body having to digest it fully, along with the water – not in a powder form mechanically broken down for you.
On a more serious note though, anyone who searches for scientific information on African Mango or Irvingia gabonensis will find some results that have a more convincing ring to them. Many websites cite a clinical trial in which the participants lost 28 pounds in a month. They allude to the activity of an enzyme within the seed of the fruit that acts to lower bad cholesterol in the body when coupled with diet and moderate exercise can result in relatively dramatic weight loss as well as lower cholesterol and blood pressure. The one thing that I noticed whilst looking in the specific clinical trials that are cited in the literature and more serious news articles, that they all have two recurring authors (Ngondi and Oben), in the same university (University of Yaounde) with trial sizes of around 100 people or less. The last trial I can find a reference to was in 2009, with other trials taking place earlier. It is the 2009 paper with 102 double blinded trial that is most cited. It is also not a generic supplement being tested however, but a specific isolated compound from within it – namely IGOB131. This data whilst positive is still regarded as preliminary and only pertains to a substance isolated from the plant. The paper concludes that the study should be the impetus for further larger scale studies, which as of yet don’t appear to have been conducted. It also applies to patients that were regarded as overweight or obese by the BMI scale and was coupled with a reduced calorie intake. It was noted that the placebo group also lost weight during the trial at a reduced rate. Some websites reviewing the African Mango supplement have used this data to encourage those looking to buy the supplement to look for a higher level of the active substance IGOB131 to ensure positive results. Whether or not it is listed within the active “ingredients” of a supplement, as we have seen in recent times such products that are sold over the internet are not subject to strict controls and the quantities could vary from pill to pill within a box.
So what can we take away from this? Well that our money is more than likely better spent on some regular, run-of-the-mill fresh fruit and vegetables, a good pair of walking/running shoes and to admit to what we all probably knew all along – weight loss is hard. It shouldn’t happen overnight, steady slow weight loss with permanent life style changes is the only way to ensure you will lose any excess weight and remain as healthy as possible. As I head back to WW for what I have promised myself will be the last, and ultimately successful, time I have to once again recognise that even though I know all of these things – it is often easier blogged about than done!