BMJ editorial says only drugs help weight loss

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Weight loss, Obesity

An article appearing in the British Medical Journal says that food and supplement products targeting weight loss are ineffective and misleading for consumers.

According to the author – M E J Lean, Professor of Human Nutrition at the University of Glasgow’s Faculty of Medicine – these products do not have adequate efficacy substantiation and should not be marketed.

The only products that are effective for aiding weight loss are drugs, he said.

“Of hundreds of products on sale, only appropriately delivered diets and exercise, orlistat, sibutramine, and bariatric surgery are safe, efficacious, and cost effective. The remainder should not be marketed until we have evidence for their effectiveness and safety,”​ he wrote in an editorial entitled Trading regulations and health foods.

The editorial was commissioned based on an idea from the author, and was externally peer-reviewed. No competing interests were declared.

Weight loss foods

Such comments, made in a well-respected scientific journal, come as a sharp blow to the food and supplements industry, which is already struggling to support its weight management products in the face of repeated criticism.

Professor Lean’s editorial states that foods marketed for health have “largely escaped” ​the type of stringent controls that are conducted on drugs to establish their safety and efficacy.

“Obesity is a serious disease that causes disability and shortens people’s lives,”​ he wrote.

The serious impacts it can have on people’s quality of life contributes to a “willingness to spend huge amounts of money on ineffective, non-evidence based, treatments.”

Treatment or prevention?

Foods and supplements claiming health benefits face stringent marketing controls for how they can be positioned. These prohibit them from claiming to treat or cure any diseases or conditions.

Professor Lean’s editorial claims that “the unregulated marketing of certain foods may include certain claims about effects on health that deceive patients”.

“The European Union promotes a free market economy in Europe,”​ he writes. “However, the pursuit of profit sometimes has to be curtailed if consumers are injured or deceived.”

His argument hinges on the very real issue of the existence of ‘bogus’ food or supplement products, which make unrealistic, unsubstantiated claims or implications.

This is particularly true of the US weight loss market, which in 2000 was estimated by the Federal Trade Commission (Weight loss advertising: An analysis of current trends, 2002)​ to be worth $35bn (€28bn).

These products have become the bane of the responsible players, who invest significant resources into substantiating their claims and testing their products’ efficacy.

Weight loss ingredients

Some ingredients used in weight loss foods and supplements include bitter orange, guar gum, hoodia, garcinia and CLA.

However, the food giant Unilever this month stunned industry by terminating its plans to market a weight loss product containing hoodia.

The firm, which had already invested €20m in the project, dropped the ingredient on the grounds that it does not meet its safety and efficacy standards.

If you would like to comment on this article, please e-mail lorraine.heller'at'


BMJ ​2008;337:a2408Trading regulations and health foodsAuthor: M E J Lean, Professor of Human Nutrition, Faculty of Medicine, University of Glasgow, Division of Development Medicine, Glasgow, Scotland

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