If there’s one thing that’s been proven time and again, it’s that there is no magic pill for weight loss.
And yet, “quick fixes” keep popping up everywhere…and they’re usually pretty problematic (I see you, detox teas). Another example: garcinia cambogia extract—an ingredient most commonly found in weight-loss supplements.
Uh, what exactly is garcinia cambogia?
Garcinia cambogia—a.k.a. Malabar tamarind—is a fruit commonly grown in India and Southeast Asia, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). The rind of the fruit is often used to flavor curries and to preserve food.
That rind, however, also contains a chemical called hydroxycitric acid (HCA), which is where the plant’s weight-loss claims come into play—HCA has been studied for weight loss through appetite suppression, per the NCCIH (which is why supplements that contain garcinia cambogia extract are also thought to help you lose weight).
So…is it true? Can garcinia cambogia help you lose weight?
While, yes, there have been studies on garcinia cambogia and weight loss, they haven’t necessarily been reliable (nor are they recent, for that matter).
In a research review set to be published in 2019, researchers found that only five randomized, controlled studies of garcinia cambogia’s effect on weight loss have been done in the last 50 years, according to Scott Kahan, M.D., M.P.H., director of the National Center for Weight & Wellness, who carried out the study. (FYI: there have been more than 14,000 studies on unfounded therapies for weight loss in that time, he says.)
What’s more: In those five studies, participants saw very little weight loss. “The most positive study showed that several months of taking garcinia cambogia may lead to one pound of weight loss, at best,” says Kahan—placebo pills were usually more effective.
Well, is garcinia cambogia harmful?
According to Kahan’s research, there are very few severe side effects of garcina cambogia (he only found a few examples of diarrhea, brain fog and, in rare cases, liver damage). And according to the NCCIH, garcinia cambogia is pretty safe for short-term use (12 weeks or fewer).
But while garcinia cambogia itself may not be terrible, the ingredients it comes packaged with in some weight-loss supplements can be.
In 2017, for example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning about the weight-loss supplement Fruta Planta Life, which is marketed as “Garcinia Cambogia Premium” and contains garcinia cambogia extract and sibutramine (Meridia), an appetite suppressant that was removed from the market in 2010 due to safety concerns. Sibutramine had been shown to increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, cause jaundice, and trigger seizures—pretty nasty stuff.
Another thing to note: since garcinia cambogia extract diet pills are supplements, not drugs, the FDA doesn’t regulate their use or review their effectiveness or safety unless their use becomes linked to multiple hospitalizations, says Sue Decotiis, M.D., a medical weight-loss expert. That means that it’s up to manufacturers to decide how much garcinia cambogia extract their pills pack, as well as what other health-impacting ingredients (like sibutramine) are added to the mix.
I probably shouldn’t take garcinia cambogia…right?
Uh yeah, it’s best to skip it. Possible side effects aside, Kahan says any weight-loss supplement containing garcinia cambogia is a waste of money.
And honestly, that goes for weight-loss supplements in general. “Unlike medical therapies, supplements and various diets and practices are not bound by strict requirements for clinical evaluation and evidence,” says Kahan, adding that “it’s unlikely that all the advertised claims are true.”
Basically, diet supplements—including ones containing garcinia cambogia—aren’t worth the risk, or money. If you want to lose weight, speak to your doctor first, and focus on combining a healthy, balanced diet with regular exercise, suggests Kahan.