Weight loss with Alli or Hoodia?

Originally Published: October 28, 2011 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: November 16, 2011
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Dear Alice,

I've decided not to use Alli for weight loss because I already eat a relatively low fat diet. However, I'm looking for something else that might help such as Hoodia. I've lost about 55 pounds since last August but need a bit of help at this point. Is Hoodia safe to use?

Dear Reader,

Feeling like you need more allies in the fight for weight loss? Look, but be wary. Hoodia (aka Hoodia gordonii) is an herb that comes from a cactus-like plant found in the Kalahari Desert in Africa and is sold as an appetite suppressant. Neither hoodia's efficacy nor potential side effects are known. Alli is an over-the-counter form of the drug Orlistat, which is also sold as the prescription drug Xenical. A health care provider may prescribe Orlistat for people who have health problems due to obesity (i.e., diabetes, high blood pressure). A health care provider can work with you to develop a weight loss plan that is safe and effective for you.

Hoodia stems have traditionally been consumed by Kalahari Bushmen to suppress hunger and thirst during the long periods of time spent hunting. Hoodia is available in a variety of forms, including capsules, liquid extracts, teas, powders, and chewable tablets. These products may also be mixed with other ingredients (i.e., green tea). Keep in mind, however, that hoodia's efficacy in appetite suppression has not been studied and that some products that claim to contain hoodia may not have any at all. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate herbal supplements, so make sure to discuss hoodia with a health care provider before taking it.

While hoodia is believed to suppress appetite, Orlistat works by preventing the intestine from absorbing fats. These fats exit the body through stools. Orlistat is taken in a capsule form three times a day with a meal that contains fat. It is taken in conjunction with a low-fat, low-calorie diet and exercise regimen. Potentially serious side effects of Orlistat include liver damage/failure, difficulty breathing, gastrointestinal problems, anxiety, and headache. These may be more common if your diet contains more than 30% calories from fat. In addition, the blocking of fat absorption also affects the body's ability to absorb beta-carotene, and other fat-soluble vitamins, such as A, D, E, and K. Before taking Orlistat, speak with a health care provider, especially if you are taking any drugs/supplements or have any medical conditions.

Other weight loss drugs (i.e., ephedrine, Metabolife, Meridia) may also help with weight loss though they may also pose serious health issues. As such, you may want to consider speaking with a health care provider who can work with you to develop a safe, effective weight loss plan. If you are a student at Columbia and would like to speak with a nutritionist and/or health care provider from Medical Services you can make an appointment by calling x4-2284 or by logging in to Open Communicator. You can also check out the Get Balanced! campaign. You may also want to consider the CU Move program to help you reach your fitness goals, as well as the responses in the Go Ask Alice! fitness and nutrition archives.

For additional resources, check out the Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website and information about MyPlate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website. For more information on herbal supplements, you may want to visit the website of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Whatever method of weight loss you decide to use —whether it be hoodia or something else — make sure that your health care provider has determined that it is safe for you. Good luck achieving your weight loss goals!