When it comes to weight loss, we know slow and steady is key. But it seems like there’s a constant stream of “extras” that are supposed to help speed up the process and make it feel a little bit easier to stay on track.
Here’s what nutrition pros think about some of the most buzzed-about weight loss supplements and tactics, and their opinion about how big a difference these trends can really make in achieving your wellness goals.
Sure, meal replacement shakes have been around forever, but trendy, “nutritionally complete” versions like Soylent, Huel and Super Body Fuel are new to the market. They’re marketed to people who are super busy yet still want to prioritize nutrition. Because they’re so convenient, people seeking weight loss have also looked to them as a solution.
However, the downside is, compared to real food, they might not be satisfying or enjoyable — two elements that are key when trying to shed pounds. “Meal replacement shakes have taken the joy out of eating and encourage us to ‘chug’ our calories down mindlessly,” says Sharon Zarabi, a registered dietitian and program director of bariatric surgery at Lenox Hill in New York City.
“Although they contain a combination of proteins, fats and carbohydrates, they are lacking in fiber,” she adds. Plus, liquids empty out of your GI tract faster than solid foods do, which has implications for feeling full, but also how many calories you burn. “There is more work involved when we need to chew and digest whole foods versus liquefied ones. When you regularly consume the latter it decreases the thermic effect of food, which is part of what keeps our metabolism elevated in the long term.” In other words, meal replacement shakes make it a little too easy for your body to digest the nutrients you’re giving it so your body doesn’t burn as many calories.
Your body also generally absorbs nutrients from food better than from supplements, Zarabi adds, so drinking one of these shakes isn’t quite like eating a meal. She recommends skipping the ingredients you can’t pronounce and instead grabbing two hard-boiled eggs and an apple or a bowl of oatmeal with peanut butter for fewer calories.
This trendy liquid hasn’t gone away and now it’s offered in pill form. And while it’s certainly not bad for you, it’s also probably not the answer to your weight loss worries, experts say.
“Like most fad diets, using apple cider vinegar to suppress appetite and promote weight loss is a quick fix and doesn’t teach people how to maintain balanced eating habits for long durations of time,” says Kristen Smith, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Smaller studies have shown it may aid in small amounts of weight loss, but without larger human studies evaluating the use of apple cider vinegar for weight loss, the verdict is still out.”
Also, ACV isn’t likely to help your GI tract, as some have speculated. “Many believe the acidic nature of the vinegar will aid in digestion,” says Kyle Kamp, a registered dietitian and owner of Valley to Peak Nutrition. “However, the acid in our stomach is far more efficient than the acid in vinegar at digesting food. In fact, our body works to maintain a certain pH (the marker of acid versus base) and will neutralize outside acids to maintain the proper pH.” What’s more, some studies noted that consuming it straight up (like a shot) caused nausea.
“On a positive note, vinegar is an excellent low-calorie flavoring agent for foods,” Smith says. “The use of vinegar instead of other higher calorie dressings or sauces may help to limit calories and potentially promote weight loss.”
Medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) oil has been touted not only as great for brain health, but also as a weight loss aid, thanks to metabolism-boosting benefits. “Anytime a product touts these claims, a user should beware,” Kamp says.
That’s because even if it can increase your metabolism, it won’t be by much. Take caffeine, for example. “It’s been well known for many years that caffeine can increase metabolism,” Kamp notes. “The question is how much? When you read the studies, the comparisons look something like this: Subject A (no caffeine) burns 1,800 calories per day. Subject B (with caffeine) burns 1,810 calories per day. We can see that person B does indeed burn more calories when using caffeinated green tea, but the amount is negligible.” MCT’s metabolism-boosting benefits are likely similarly minimal.
Plus, companies often pitch customers on the premise that MCT oil is ‘digested differently’ and ‘has fewer calories’ than other oils. “While it is true that straight MCT oil is digested differently, many people purchase coconut oil in an effort to increase their MCT intake,” Kamp says. “The unfortunate reality is coconut oil is only 66% MCT. The remainder is long-chain fatty acids, like those found in olive oil.”
What’s more, many brands also suggest MCT oil has fewer calories per gram than other fats. “It’s true that MCT digestion yields few calories, but when you dig deeper, you see that MCT oil has 8.3 calories per gram and other fats have 9. In reality, a person is saving themselves 0.7 calories by choosing MCT oils — an amount that is negligible.”
Another supposed metabolism-booster, the research on black seed oil is fairly scant. “The benefit of any oil is that it acts as a lubricant to help food move along the GI tract and increase bowel motility, which will help get rid of internal waste,” Zarabi notes. But you can get these benefits from other healthy fat sources like sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, nuts and fish, she says.
“Given the limited research, I think black seed oil is an overpriced source of fat,” says Zarabi. “If you are really trying to lose weight, get back to the basics of whole food, clean eating, honoring hunger, respecting fullness and avoiding anything that sounds too good to be true.”