Konjac Con

lipozeneJust watched acommercial on TV for “Lipozene.” What a miracle product this is! Magical weight loss with no side effects. Whoa…time to reign in the claims.

 Just take the pills a few times a day and watch the pounds melt away. So goes the claim. Whoaaa. Time to reign in the galloping hyperboles.

The “active” ingredient is glucomannan is a form of dietary fiber that is extracted from the root of the konjac plant. Fiber, by definition, is any type of carbohydrate that cannot be digested and consequently cannot be absorbed into the bloodstream from the small intestine. It makes its way to the large intestine or colon, where bacteria may break it down into smaller components. Most of these, along with intact fiber are excreted. Glucomannan is made of glucose and mannose molecules joined together in long chains, but unlike digestible carbohydrates like starch, it is resistant to breakdown by our salivary or pancreatic enzymes. As a dose of indigestible glucomannan sits in the stomach or small bowel before passing on to the colon, it absorbs a great deal of water. This bulky mélange of water and fiber makes for a feeling of fullness and curbs the appetite. There have actually been a few short term studies indicating more efficient weight loss on a low calorie diet when it was combined with about 4 grams of glucomannan per day.

Marketers take such studies and inflate them with hype about easy weight loss. They promise weight loss without the need to diet or exercise for anyone. Of course this is a promise that cannot be fulfilled, which is the reason that an American company called Obesity Research Institute was taken to task by the Federal Trade Commission and was made to return 1.5 million dollars to customers who had been victimized by unsubstantiated claims. Two physicians who appeared as “expert endorsers” on infomercials produced by the company were also reprimanded. Seems that money can blur scientific vision.


Joe Schwarcz

Konjac and weight loss

Konjac rootIt is unbelievable what people will believe. Especially when it comes to weight loss. No matter how many “magic” pills have come and gone, hope reigns eternal that the next one that comes around will deliver the miracle of melting away the fat without paying attention to calories or energy expenditure. The latest “wonder,” marketed by Healthy Products for Life is yet another “breakthrough” that, at least according to a giant newspaper ad, shows such “staggering weight loss” that it has“stunned doctors.” “You can eat the foods you love and crave and actually watch your weight plummet,” claims the ad. There is even a generic picture of an unnamed doctor, not exactly looking stunned, and a recommendation “not to lose weight too quickly.” Furthermore, we learn that the pill is not intended for people who only need to lose five to ten pounds. A clever way to hype the supposed power of this dietary supplement.

There’s also repeated reference to scientific proof without documenting any actual reference. But the ad does provide a clue about the nature of this miracle. The “secret ingredient” is actually named. So it isn’t really so secret. And neither is it anything novel. It is Konjac root. Numerous other weight loss pills are based on this ingredient, and there is nothing magical about it. The root of the konjac plant has long been used in Japan to formulate low calorie foods because of its glucomannan content. This soluble fiber has an amazing ability to absorb water and swell into a gel that fills the stomach and curbs the appetite. Being of a slippery nature, the gel transits through the intestine quite easily and can have a laxative effect, which may be welcome to people struggling with constipation.

A full stomach, be it from drinking lots of water or consuming soluble fiber, does have an appetite suppressant effect. But does that necessarily lead to weight loss? A few limited studies suggest that it does. In an eight week double blind study of 20 obese people, a one gram supplement of glucomannan taken one hour before each meal resulted in a six pound loss over eight weeks. An added bonus was a drop in blood cholesterol level. In a larger placebo-controlled trial of 200 overweight and obese subjects, a mixture of psyllium seed husks (3g) and glucomannan (1g) given either twice or three times resulted in a roughly ten pound loss over four months. While there is at least some evidence for weight loss over the short term, there are no long term studies. And there is something else to consider. That’s a warning by Health Canada that glucomannan in tablet, capsule or powder form, has a potential for harm if taken without at least 8 ounces of water or other fluid. Cases have been reported in which glucomannan has led to choking and/or blockage of the throat, esophagus or intestine. In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration has also warned about a choking hazard in children when gelatinous candies made with konjac root became lodged in the throat.

The Federal Trade Commission has also gone after some companies marketing konjac products for making weight loss claims that went far beyond what was supported by clinical evidence. Obesity Research Institute, the marketer of FiberThin, Zylotrim, Propolene and Lipozene, settled FTC charges that their misleading weight-loss claims violated federal laws by agreeing to pay $1.5 million in consumer redress. Basically what we have with konjac root is the common ploy by marketers of “natural health products” of building a mountain of hope from a mole hill of evidence.

Joe Schwarcz

A “Short” Solution to Shedding the Pounds

WrestlersI had friends in University that wrestled. And I never really got it.  The jousting, the hold-‘em-down-till-they’re-finished-mentality. And the outfits. I won’t even get started on that one. But what really got to me was the way these wrestlers went about their training and what they felt they had to endure to prepare for their time in the ring. I heard stories of riding stationary bikes. In saunas. Wearing full sweat suits, hoods and all. The point? Sweat off the pounds. Shed enough water that when being weighed, you make it to the lower weight category so your opponent would be on the smaller side. This, I felt, was just plain dangerous.

My time at University is long gone and my wrestling friends have moved on and found other sports. Yet the other day, I came across a new line of workout clothes, designed to heat up the body to promote weight loss. My neural connections fired and there I was, back to my “why are you biking in a sauna?” days. The clothes are manufactured by Delfin Spa, and made out of a “bio-ceramic” material, a material made by heating various mineral oxides such as those of silica, aluminum, and magnesium. This is then added to the nylon/lycra lining of the shorts.

According to the manufacturer, the bio-ceramic material is essential since it’s prime function is to interact with our “body’s naturally produced Far-Infrared Rays (FIRs), “or in a simple word, heat. Basically the material reflects heat. Supposedly the heat then breaks down cellulite. Fat chance. The Delfin Spa website essentially agrees, stating that the “Delfin Spa Anti-Cellulite cream” is also needed. It utilizes a combination of natural plant extracts to lessen cellulite, improve micro circulation and assist in reduction of retained liquid.”

But don’t worry, if you think the cost of both these nifty workout clothes and cream is more than you can handle, you will be getting your money’s worth, since both the shorts and the cream can be used even if you don’t exercise. These materials are designed to be sleek and tight-fitting and so can be worn all day, every day. So while you may have to compromise comfort at the office, just think – the more hot and sweaty you’ll get, the more likely those cute little shorts under your jeans are working hard to penetrate the cellulite on your butt cheeks. If only these were around for my Wrestler friends. And if only they worked.


Emily Shore


What is the “Blood Type Diet?”

dietThere will always be a hunger for diet books. Hope reigns eternal when it comes to the quest for shedding those extra pounds. No matter how many failed diets the overweight have struggled through, there is always the hope that maybe the next one will produce the sought-after miracle. And the more scientific sounding a diet is, the more seductive its allure. Pseudoscience cloaked in legitimate scientific terms seems to work particularly well. Take Peter D’Adamo’s epic Eat Right 4 Your Blood Type. Sometimes you can quickly look through a book and find a claim that immediately casts a shadow on the whole work. D’Adamo makes the statement that people with type O blood are more prone to suffer from hypothyroidism because their bodies tend not to produce enough iodine. The remedy? Type Os should eat meat and avoid wheat. This is absurd beyond belief. The body does not produce iodine, no matter what blood type is involved. It is a mineral that has to be furnished by the diet. And in any case, meat is not a good source. Should we be surprised that D’Adamo has such a poor grasp of nutrition? Probably not. He’s not a nutritional scientist. He’s a naturopath. The rest of the “science” in the Blood Type approach to diet is hard to encapsulate because it is so bizarre and confusing. He points out, correctly, that blood type is determined by the presence or absence of two proteins on the surface of red blood cells and then goes on to describe how these can interact with food components and cause disease and weight problems.

The culprits in food are proteins called lectins. According to D’Adamo these can interact with the proteins on red blood cells and cause these cells to clump together and gum up the body’s internal machinery. What evidence is there for this? Essentially none. Take a drop of blood, put it under a microscope and add lectins and there may be an effect. But this is very different from anything that happens in the body. Lectins do not survive digestion and do not enter the bloodstream in an unaltered form. If they did, there could be dire consequences. In fact, D’Adamo tries to make a point of this by referring to Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian émigré who was poisoned in London by the Bulgarian secret police using ricin, extracted from castor beans. Ricin is indeed a lectin. But this celebrated assassination was carried out by injecting the chemical directly into the victim’s bloodstream using a specially made umbrella. Feeding him the ricin would not have done it! The theory behind the Blood Type Diet makes no sense. But that does not necessarily mean the diet doesn’t work. That can only be determined by appropriate experiments. D’Adamo does furnish us with any such. Where is the evidence for the wild ramblings about agglutinated red blood cells after eating the wrong kinds of foods? How come physicians have not noted organ failure in people consuming diets inappropriate for their blood type? After all, most of us do not follow D’Adamo’s advice. Where are the documented trials about people who have lost weight? The bottom line is that there is no evidence for these silly meanderings and confusing people with such nonsense will not put them on the path for proper nutrition.

Joe Schwarcz

Can Synephrine Help In Weight Loss?

supplementsThe weight-loss pill industry is in a bit of a panic. It lost its major cash cow when supplements containing ephedrine were banned in North America. We’re not talking pennies here, we are talking about billions of dollars. So the scramble is on to find a replacement which can be marketed using the key words, “natural,” “effective” and “safe.” Those were in fact the terms that fueled the runaway sales of ephedra products. Ephedra was natural. Not that this means anything in terms of safety, but it was derived from a plant often referred to as Ma Huang. Whether it was effective or not is arguable. Ephedrine certainly stimulates the activity of the body’s sympathetic nervous system, which in turn leads to increased thermogenesis, a phenomenon loved by marketers. This basically means that the body temperature rises slightly. The energy to do this comes from breaking down fat in fat cells, particularly the ones that make up what we call brown adipose tissue. So, at least in theory, ephedra products could have offered some slight aid in weight loss. But as it turned out, they were not safe. Stimulating the sympathetic nervous system can also cause elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, insomnia and anxiety.

Once ephedra was banned, the race was on to find a substitute. An extract of the Citrus Aurantium plant was a good candidate because it contained synephrine, a compound that like ephedrine could stimulate thermogenesis. And it was legal! If the name sounds familiar, it is because you may associate it with Neo-Synephrine, a common over-the counter decongestant. The active ingredient in this product is neo-synephrine, also known as phenylephrine. If you take a look at the label, you will see all sorts of warnings about possible side effects including an increase in blood pressure. The risk, however, is very small since such medications are used for a very short period. Synephrine differs only slightly in molecular structure. So its side effect profile is expected to be roughly the same. The difference, though, is that such weight control products are used for months, meaning the risk increases. That’s why Health Canada has stepped in and issued a warning about weight control products containing synephrine. Their sale and importation into Canada are now illegal. The common name for the Citrus Aurantium plant is “bitter orange,” and I suspect some marketers may want to hide behind this name and not mention their product contains synephrine. They may even make use of “zhi shi,” the Chinese name for the plant. There is yet a further issue with synephrine. It is not the only compound in the plant that can raise blood pressure. Octopamine and tyramine can do that as well, and nobody knows how much of these is present in any product that contains “bitter orange” extract. It’s about time that our government starts exercising its regulatory muscle to protect the public from questionable products.

Small Changes, Big Difference

Weight lossResearchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have come up with some interesting data. They analyzed surveys filled out by some 120,000 nurses, physicians, veterinarians and dentists over a period of about twenty years. Starting in the 1980s these subjects answered questionnaires about their diet and weight, including specifics about the number of servings of various foods they consumed per day. Some fascinating revelations have emerged from the massive amount of data collected. First of all, there was an average weight gain of about seventeen pounds over twenty years. Remember, these were educated subjects who presumably knew something about nutrition, yet pounds snuck on roughly at a rate of a pound a year. Different foods and beverages had different effects. Certain ones had a greater impact on weight gain than others. Over the years some people increased their intake of some foods and decreased the intake of others. Statistical analysis was able to tease out their effects on weight.

French fries emerged as the number one villain. One serving a day will result in a weight gain of about a pound and a half a year. Any other type of potato leads to only one sixth as much weight gain. It may seem that this is obvious because the fries contain more fat. However, the data also show that an extra serving of nuts a day actually results in the loss of about a fifth of a pound over a year, despite the nuts being rich in fat. So weight control is more complex than just counting calories. The nuts probably have a greater satiety value and keep people from feeling hungry for a longer time than the fries. As one would guess, eating more fruits and vegetables was associated with weight loss, as were whole grains.

Also, as expected, sugar-sweetened beverages, refined grains, trans fats and potato chips were associated with weight gain. It was also no great surprise that red meat and processed meats put on the pounds. But there was a surprise with dairy products. Whether whole fat or low fat they didn’t have much of an effect. The biggest shock was yogurt. People who ate a serving a day were likely to see a weight loss of a third of a pound over a year. What all of this means is that the usual advice of eating everything in moderation is not the best advice. There are foods to stay away from and foods to try to include in the diet. If you want to control weight, stay away from fries, chips, soft drinks and refined cereals. Minimize red meat and eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and nuts. And of course, do exercise. In the Harvard study the most sedentary put on the most weight. Sleep was also a factor. People who slept less than six or more than eight hours put on the most weight. The more TV people watched the more they gained. Remember that small changes can make a big difference.

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