Hoodia Gordonii: The “Magic Pill” for Weight Loss?
Nearly 70 years ago, an unnamed Dutch anthropologist discovered something that many today claim is a weight loss “miracle”.
Many centuries ago (and possibly to this day!) the San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert ate a succulent plant to help stave off hunger and thirst on long hunting trips.
One day, back in 1937, the Dutch anthropologist noted the appetite suppressant effects of the plant and took the revelation back to Europe.
Spurred by the promise that a new cure for obesity had been found, researchers from South Africa and Britain collaborated to isolate the active ingredient in this miracle plant, hoping to give the world the weight loss “magic bullet”, it had been waiting for.
No more counting calories! No more exercising! No need for willpower! We can all just pop in a couple of pills and our overweight days are over. We can live happily ever after.
Sounds like a fairy tale? That’s because it is. And, that broken promise is known as Hoodia gordonii.
Yes, that’s the same Hoodia that’s been touted through every possible media outlet as a potential “cure” for obesity.
A Quick History Lesson1…
While most people think of Hoodia as a specific plant that has weight loss benefits, there are actually 13 different types of Hoodia. Of these, only Hoodia gordonii contains the active ingredient (P57) that helps to suppress appetite.
When the South African researchers isolated P57, they patented it in 1995, and then licensed its use to their British partner Phytopharm. After spending more than $20 million on research, Phytopharm subbed out the license to Big Pharma goliath, Pfizer in 1998 for $21 million.
While all this may be fascinating to research types, it’s actually quite telling about the true promise (or the lack thereof) of. You see, shortly after getting the sub-license, Pfizer returned it. In other words, thanks, but no thanks.
So, you have one Big Pharma company sub-licensing it to another AFTER spending $20 million and then that sub-licensee returns the license. Big Pharma knows a profit when they smell it. The fact that they were treating the license as a red-headed stepchild speaks volumes about their lack of faith in it.
Great Spin, Bad Studies…
Pfizer aside, $20 million on research has to bear some fruit, right? Turns out, the press and buzz around Hoodia is stronger than the research.
First, there was the November 2004 60 Minutes piece by Leslie Stahl2. Billed as the “newest weapon in the war on obesity,” Stahl trekked into the desert in search of Hoodia. Once their tracker and native bushman found a Hoodia plant, Stahl ate it. She claimed it did in fact suppress her appetite and had no negative side effects.
And then there’s TrimSpa and Anna Nicole Smith. After ephedra was taken off the market, weight loss supplement manufacturer TrimSpa, replaced the banned ephedra with Hoodia. After using the supplement, former model and reality star Anna Nicole Smith slimmed down and credited TrimSpa with her amazing new body.
That’s proof, right? After all, it was on TV! While that may be enough for some people, it’s not for us. We wanted studies.
What the (Sole) Study Says…
We expected to find study after study proving the effectiveness of Hoodia. After all, it seems to resemble its Indian counterpart Caralluma fimbriata. We soon learned that the only thing they have in common is traditional use.
Turns out, there is a severe lack of clinical research on Hoodia. In fact, we could only locate two published studies on Hoodia.
The first was from a 2004 issue of Brain Research3.
Researchers injected Hoodia Extract P57 into the brains of rats. They found that the rats that received the injections ate less than the rats that received the placebo.
One of the issues with this study is that it was done using rats versus humans. More problematic, however, is the use of cerebral injections. While many people are desperate for a weight loss solution and may be willing to try just about anything, we have a hard time believing that brain injections are the next “big idea” in the weight loss battle.
The second study is actually a case report from the October 2010 issue of Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics.4 In this study, a 57-year-old overweight woman questioned whether or not Hoodia could assist her in reaching her weight loss goals. Researchers at the College of Pharmacy at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, decided to look into it.
After an exhaustive search of the literature, including Medline, the Cochrane Library, Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, and others, they couldn’t find a single, published, peer-reviewed study on Hoodia. They did, however, find two unpublished studies that had some promising results.
The first study was a double-blind, placebo-controlled study1,5 performed in 2001 by Phytopharm, the same British company that licenses Hoodia’s active ingredient. They divided 24 participants into two groups. One received the Hoodia extract and the other received a placebo.
At the end of the study period, those taking the P57 had statistically significant reductions in both body fat and caloric intake (about 1,000 calories less per day than the placebo group).
Sounds good, right?
Unfortunately, because the study was never published or peer reviewed, its quality and findings cannot be properly judged. In addition, the fact that they decided NOT to publish it is a fairly negative sign.
Follow the Buzz or the Science?
Normally, we would be telling you how Hoodia works, the scientific studies that prove the claims, and recommended dosages. But, truthfully, we don’t think you should waste your time with this supplement.
News anchors and former models are poor substitutes for solid research, and Hoodia falls severely short in that department.
The lesson here is that NO supplement is a magic pill. The real secret to permanent weight loss is to maintain a reasonable caloric intake full of nutrient-dense whole foods and engage in moderate daily exercise.
If you do decide to use herbs or supplements to boost your weight loss efforts, make sure there is real science behind the product. That way, you’ll lose more than just money.
1Wong, Cathy. “Hoodia gordonii review.” About.com. Updated September 20, 2007.
2Stahl, Leslie. “African plant may help fight fat: Lesley Stahl reports on newest weapon in war on obesity.” CBS’ 60 Minutes. November 21, 2004.
3MacLean, DB and Luo, LG. “Increased ATP content/production in the hypothalamus may be a signal for energy-sensing of satiety: studies of the anorectic mechanism of a plant steroidal glycoside.” Brain Res. 2004 Sep 10;1020(1-2):1-11.
4Whelan, AM, et al. “Case Report: Efficacy of Hoodia for weight loss: is there evidence to support the efficacy claims?” J Clin Pharm Ther. 2010 Oct; 35(5):609-12.
5“Proof of principle phase I clinical study of P57 for obesity.” Phytopharm.com. April 10, 2001.
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