New Research and Opportunities in Weight Management
Untold tens of thousands of published scientific studies reveal ways to maintain a healthy body weight. Most weight management studies published in the past 20 years heavily emphasize overall diet and lifestyle, incorporating lifestyle interventions in addition to drugs or supplements.
Simple lifestyle interventions—like getting a daily text reminder, recording an eating diary, and attending group meetings or therapy—are shown to help lose some weight. Yet on average, the weight lost with most simple interventions (no extreme calorie restriction or drug or supplement intervention) is usually small—in the range of 5 to 10 pounds over a course of three to 12 months, depending on the study.
Over the longer term, the numbers are worse. Folks often rubber band as far the opposite way as they came. Either way, many rigid plans over the long term are enough to reverse obesity and improve health outcomes for most individuals. Overweight individuals often need a little more help to reach a healthy weight.
But these days, marketing supplements to support weight management goals is tough, and depends more than ever on how a product is developed, studied and labeled. Intense regulatory scrutiny of weight loss supplements has all but decimated the use of the word “loss.” Now, products historically marketed for “weight loss” are instead touting “weight management,” and making no numerical claims about pounds or body mass index (BMI) lost. It’s hard to tell how well these claims resonate with consumers.
The bar to make more aggressive and meaningful claims has been set high in recent times by FTC, which requires repeated, well-designed, rigorous clinical studies that stand up to scrutiny. Lower-risk approaches are frequently recommended, to include carefully worded marketing and labeling. Adding qualified claims and disclaimers on weight management products can serve to both educate consumers as to what they should do outside of taking a supplement—and also warn them that a pill will not cure couch potato-itis. Today’s savvy consumers know that miracle diets are unbelievable, because many of the more successful weight management regimens in recent years have included nutritional products within a lifestyle plan, such as diet guidance, food lists and other helpful tools.
In that context, let’s talk about some of the supplements shown to be helpful for weight loss, supplements shown to be helpful for weight loss especially as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle:
Whey protein: It makes sense that protein intake can replace carbs and fat and help to increase muscle mass. But science is starting to figure out other ways in which protein works for healthy body weight. A 2022 study in older overweight or obese women found that adding 20 grams of whey protein or whey protein hydrolysate to an energy-restricted diet for eight weeks reduced body fat and upregulated key metabolomic pathways compared to the restricted diet alone. On the protein note, another 2022 study found that unprocessed red meat in overweight/obese adults after a rapid weight loss further reduced body fat and increased lean muscle mass.
Omega-3 fatty acids: Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are important nutrients that play a role in body lipids and inflammation. Studies have suggested that supplementation with omega-3 can help reduce body weight. A recent study in middle-aged, overweight adults found that 1,020 mg omega-3s for 12 weeks lowered abdominal fat versus the placebo group.
Licorice extract: Studies on nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) may offer some clues of interventions that may also be helpful for weight loss. Because NAFLD and obesity are heavily associated, improving markers of one often leads to an improvement in the other. In one study in women with NAFLD, women who took 1,000 mg licorice extract a day as part of a weight loss diet experienced improved markers of NAFLD, versus those who only engaged in a lifestyle intervention. More research is needed to determine the potential effects of licorice on body weight.
Synbiotics: Some subpopulations of humans are more prone to gain excess weight. In a recent study on people experiencing weight gain due to antipsychotic use, those who took probiotics with dietary fiber reduced body weight and metabolic abnormalities.
Antioxidants: Natural antioxidants from fruits, vegetables and spices show promise, because they tend to support metabolic function and help to balance inflammation associated with stress and being overweight. A study on Moro blood orange extract improved BMI, fat mass, and hip and waist circumference in healthy, overweight adults after six months, versus placebo.
Calcium and vitamin D: Combining calcium with vitamin D and low-fat dairy products as part of a hypocaloric diet was recently shown to improve blood lipids, leptin and apolipoprotein B (ApoB, involved in lipid metabolism). Both calcium and vitamin D are essential to metabolic function, and a large percentage of American adults are at least moderately insufficient in this nutrient pairing.
Natural GLP-1 agonists: One main emerging biological pathway interesting for weight loss drugs and supplements is glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1). Semaglutide (Ozempic) is one of the notable drugs that increases the expression of GLP-1, which reduces feelings of hunger and food intake, resulting in significant weight loss. However, this class of drugs is associated with side effects and the unknowns of long-term use. Several natural products also appear to act as GLP-1 agonists, some of which are traditionally used to support healthy metabolic function. Examples of GLP-1 agonists in the diet include:
• Hops extract (500 mg) in both fast and slow-release forms stimulated secretion of lunchtime GLP-1, as well as ghrelin and peptide YY, compared to placebo.
• Eriocitrin (200 mg as Eriomin, from Ingredients by Nature) is an antioxidant flavonoid from lemons which in a 2022 study increased GLP-1 while decreasing blood glucose and tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha in people with moderately high blood sugar.
• Isomaltulose is an alternative sugar which does not spike blood sugar like other sugars. In a 2019 study, isomaltulose increased GLP-1 by up to 85% compared to sucrose or table sugar, while decreasing blood sugar and insulin in healthy, impaired glucose and type 2 diabetic adults.
Looking at the recent literature, measurement of markers like GLP-1 has increasingly become standard in weight management trials. It’s only a matter of time until some supplements are validated in rigorous, large studies with well-designed dietary interventions proven to accelerate weight loss and support healthy weight management for the long term.
Reflecting on the kinds of supplements being studied versus the dietary recommendations supporting a healthy body weight, a lot is shared in common: antioxidants, fiber, micronutrients and healthy fats are considered part of a healthy diet more now than ever.
But as everyone knows, it’s hard to get enough of these nutrients from foods alone. So these days, when I sit down with my parents for a family meal, I’m bringing some supplements.
This article was originally published in the April 2023 Natural Products Insider Digital Magazine.