Complementary Medicines for Weight Loss – Good for Your Waist or Good Money Wasters

Pills, potions and powders touting weight loss benefits are everywhere you look! They’re in the shops, sold online and maybe even sitting on the shelf in your home. It’s hard to spot truth from tale when it comes to complementary medicines for weight loss. Which ones work? Which don’t work? Which ones are safe?

How do you see through the powerful marketing of complementary medicines for weight loss to make wiser choices? By being informed. Some complementary medicines for weight control are dangerous, while others may not have any benefit or impact at all. With the continuing rise in popularity of these products, now is the perfect time to evaluate herbal medicines and their impact on weight loss.

What Are Complementary and Alternative Medicines (CAMs)?

Complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) are health practices not considered mainstream by medical professions. They include:

  • dietary supplements
  • herbal preparations
  • mega dose vitamins
  • acupuncture
  • massage therapy
  • meditation
  • hypnosis

How Effective are CAMs for Weight Loss?

Now to the major question – how effective are CAMs in winning the battle of the bulge? To date, there is little evidence that CAMs can help reduce body weight, however most natural weight loss products available have not yet been thoroughly tested. Research on these products is often done on single CAMs only. Many CAM products contain more than one type of CAM, as CAMs can work together to produce a greater effect than if they’re taken on their own.

How Accurate is the Advertising of CAMs for Weight Loss?

Advertisers of weight control products do not always conduct rigorous trials on products to support their weight loss claims. The claims you see on the packet may not always be accurate, and can often be false or misleading.

There is currently pressure on the Federal Government to clamp down on lenient practices in the marketing of CAMs. This is due to an increase in fines against the pharmaceutical industry for breaching drug promotion rules. Critics claim that, while conventional drug makers can receive huge fines if they break the rules, CAM makers can still get away with making dubious and misleading claims about their products. The CAMs main umbrella group, the Complementary Healthcare Council, however, claims existing regulation is sufficient.

How Safe are CAMs for Weight Loss?

Some CAMs sold today can be dangerous. You’ve probably heard the saying, “Just because it’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s safe.” This is especially true in regards to CAMs for weight loss. Guar gum, for example, may cause blockages in the digestive tract. Misuse of the herb cascara has caused problems with some minerals in the body, and should not be taken during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Some CAMs for weight loss have been banned in certain countries owing to safety concerns. A number of CAMs can also interact with conventional medicines to cause health problems.

Other weight loss CAMs might not be so dangerous. The herb dandelion is safe for most people, however it can cause allergic reactions in others. The table below lists possible adverse affects of a number of different weight loss CAMs.

Are CAMs Recommended for Weight Loss?

According to Professor of Complementary Medicine Marc Cohen, from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, there are some CAMs that appear to help with weight control. The studies done on these are, however, only small and the results are inconclusive. Professor Cohen concludes that no CAM products can be recommended for weight loss, and, for safety reasons, some should even be discouraged. The medical profession does not support the use of CAMs for weight loss.

Remember, there is no quick-fix for weight loss. Healthy eating habits and regular exercise are the tried and tested techniques proven to support weight control. Talk to your doctor before taking any CAMs for weight loss – some could be a waste of money, or even worse, dangerous to your health.

CAMs Linked to Weight Loss

Beware, most of the claims below have not been proven, and some of them have safety issues. Research on many weight loss CAMs is in its infancy.

CAM Weight loss claims Possible adverse effects Research evidence
Acupuncture: needles inserted into the body at specific points to help the body function better and assist with healing May help suppress appetite Pain, bruising, injury to the skin and, if the needles are not sterile, infection Further research on the effectiveness of acupuncture on weight loss is needed
Aloe vera: a plant Internal cleanser, when taken orally Cramping and diarrhoea. Aloe vera should not be taken orally by people with intestinal problems (such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis) or abdominal pain of unknown causes. The use of aloe vera has not been proven to keep weight off
Brindleberry (also known as garcinia cambogia or hydroxycitric acid (HCA)): a fruit, the active ingredient being hydroxycitric acid Reduces appetite, reduces fat stores, enhances fat burning Cases of liver damage have been reported in individuals taking brindleberry. In each case, the affected individual was also taking other dietary supplements and/or prescription medication, so the exact cause of the damage is unclear. Evidence of effectiveness is contradictory. More studies are required.
Cascara: a herb Strong stimulant laxative Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take cascara. Misuse of this herb has caused mineral imbalances in the body, including imbalances of sodium and potassium. Cascara might interact with some medications. A journal article published in 2004 in the American Family Physician claimed this herb has not been specifically studied for weight loss in humans
Chitosan: a supplement made from chitin – a starch in shellfish “Binds” to fatty foods in the body before the fat can be digested, so the fat passes through the digestive tract unabsorbed No known side-effects, however more research is needed to prove this. Several studies found chitosan is no more effective than a placebo (sugar pill)
Chromium: a mineral Enhances the effect of the hormone insulin and therefore the utilisation of carbohydrates Side effects from taking chromium supplements are rare. The chromium found in foods will not cause harm. Taking high amounts of chromium supplements can cause stomach problems and low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia). Obtaining too much chromium from supplements can damage the liver, kidneys and nerves, and may cause irregular heart rhythm. Research does not support the use of chromium for weight loss
Dandelion: a herb Diuretic (reduces the amount of water in the body) Allergic reactions and heartburn No or few studies have evaluated the effectiveness of dandelion for weight loss
Ginseng: a herb Modulates carbohydrate metabolism Generally well tolerated, but side effects include headaches, sleep problems, gastrointestinal problems and allergic reactions. People with health problems should consult a medical practitioner before taking ginseng. It is not recommended in pregnancy or breastfeeding. Interacts with blood pressure medications. Research shows ginseng may be ineffective for weight loss
Glucomannan: made from the root of a plant Delays the absorption of glucose from the intestines and increases feelings of fullness People with diabetes or a previous history of gastrointestinal obstruction should not take glucomannan. Insufficient or conflicting evidence
Guarana: made from the seeds of a plant native to Brazil Stimulant and diuretic Nausea, dizziness, anxiousness, high blood pressure, prolonged bleeding and interactions with blood thinning medication There is some evidence for weight loss, but the preparations used in these studies included other herbs simultaneously.
Guar Gum: a fibre from the guar bean plant Slows down the digestion of food, helping you feel fuller for longer Obstructions in the oesophagus (food pipe). Reviews of many studies show it has no effect on weight loss
Hypnosis: a sleep-like state in which a person is more open to the power of suggestion May help curb cravings for particular foods Many possible side effects including fatigue, personality changes, uncontrolled weeping, confusion, panic attacks and anxiety. Effective for weight loss in a clinical setting when performed by trained psychiatrists, psychologists etc.
Meditation: a mind control technique to promote inner calmness, healing and happiness Reduces stress and anxiety, so can help with emotional and compulsive eating Many possible adverse effects including mild dissociation, psychosis-like symptoms, relaxation-induced anxiety and panic, paradoxical increases in tension, confusion, disorientation and feeling ‘spaced out’. Meditation has been found to be effective in helping with weight loss.
Pyruvate: formed by the body during digestion and found in some foods Decreases appetite and boosts metabolism Taking 30 grams or more at once has caused occasional nausea and stomach upset. Further studies to support these claims is required
Psyllium: husks high in fibre Increases feeling of fullness Breathing problems, swallowing problems, stomach pain, skin rashes, itching, upset stomach and vomiting. Studies suggest psyllium is ineffective for weight loss
Spirulina: a blue-green algae high in nutrients Inhibits appetite No side effects have been identified. Studies suggest spirulina is ineffective for weight loss
St John’s Wort: a herb Primarily used as an antidepressant Can interact adversely with the oral contraceptive pill and various medications, such as antidepressants. The use of St John’s Wort for weight loss is theoretical and potentially dangerous


This article was compiled in consultation with experts and in reference to the following sources:

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ABC, ‘Ginseng’,

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ABC, ‘Suggesting Hypnosis – What Exactly is Hypnosis?’,

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Cleveland Clinic, ‘Herbal Remedies for Weight Loss?’,

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Inhouse Pharmacy (UK), ‘HCA & Garcinia Cambogia for Weight Loss,’

International Journal of Obesity, ‘Acupuncture for the Treatment of Obesity: a Review of the Evidence’,

Jean L. Kristeller, ‘Midfulness, Wisdom and Eating: Applying a Multi-Domain Model of Meditation Effects’, Journal of Constructivism in the Human Sciences, 2003, Vol 8 (2), pp 107-118

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NHIOnDemand, ‘Pyruvate’,

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