Weight Loss Wonder: Hoodia
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | October 25, 2005

“As seen on 60 Minutes!” say the ads touting the next great weight loss miracle-in-a-bottle called hoodia gordonii. Between the incessant e-mails I keep getting (that somehow elude our SPAM-blocking software) and questions from regular readers, it’s time to examine hoodia and find out whether this is hype or something to give us hope in our battle to lose weight.

Hoodia and the Media
In the past two years, both the BBC and the 60 Minutes news magazine on CBS have had stories on hoodia. They sent reporters to the Kalahari Desert in South Africa to find out about hoodia from the source. The story it that the Bushmen who live is this hostile environment eat hoodia as a way of sating their appetite as they travel long distances while hunting.

Hoodia is a cactus that lives in that region of the world. When cut and peeled, it has the texture of a cucumber with a taste that is described as not too bitter. Being good reporters, both Leslie Stahl of CBS and Tom Mangold of the BBC tried hoodia. In the cases of the reporters and their crews, it did reduce their appetite to the extent that they ate very little over the next two days.

The implication would be that eating the hoodia plant might be a way of reducing appetite and thus helping an individual to lose weight. But the plant is rare and is an endangered species--it’s not showing up in your supermarket any time soon. The next best thing would be to see if the essence of hoodia could be extracted and put in pill form.

Hoodia in a Pill
While being researched for more than 30 years, according to a South African company, the active ingredient in hoodia seems to have been isolated--P57. The next step would be clinical trials to see if it’s effective. Before reviewing the research, it’s noteworthy that this rare plant is not easily grown as a conventional plant on farms. In order to supply the potential demand from an ever-increasing number of overweight adults, it would require substantial numbers of hoodia farms--something that’s probably a decade away.

While the e-mails and websites tout the research on hoodia, here’s what I’ve found to date:
  • A search of Medline resulted in a single citation for hoodia gordonii (1). The study examined the change in ATP levels in various parts of the brain after injections of the extract from hoodia called P57--injections into various parts of the brains of rats. This has little or no bearing on taking hoodia in pill form, and what happens in rodents doesn’t always happen in humans.

  • One website cites the research on the effects of hoodia on food intake in rats (2,3). In both studies, the rats ate less after being fed hoodia. Both citations are from FASEB, the journal of the Society for Experimental Biology. They are found in the annual issue that publishes the abstracts of papers and posters presented at the FASEB national convention. The peer-review process isn’t as critical because the purpose is to stimulate debate and further research. If scientifically meritorious, it’s published in a peer-reviewed journal. After three and four years respectively, that hasn’t happened.

  • The study touted on almost every website that sells hoodia involves a group of morbidly obese patients who were given hoodia. After 15 days, they ate about 1,000 fewer calories per day than those in the control group. However, that’s all that’s known--because the study still hasn’t been published. Did the subjects lose weight? The assumption is that they did, but why did they decrease intake only 1,000 calories per day when eating hoodia, since it seemed to take away the appetite completely in the normal-weight reporters and their crew who tried it? There just aren’t enough answers when research isn’t published.

  • Most websites selling hoodia in pills seem to spend a considerable amount of time accusing other companies’ products of not being genuine. My question for all of them is simple: how are you legally importing an endangered species if it’s the real Kalahari-grown hoodia? Further, P-57 is so difficult to extract that the chemical company Pfizer appears to have given up on it. Where is their extract coming from?

Bottom Line: Eating the hoodia plant seems to reduce appetite in normal-weight individuals. But to date, there’s no credible scientific evidence that hoodia or hoodia extract in pill form does anything to curb appetite. That’s why double-blind, placebo-controlled trials are necessary: to tease out the results from people who are actually taking the substance versus those who just think they’re taking it. The placebo effect is a powerful one and must be eliminated if research is to be credible.

We’d all like to think that there’s a miracle-in-a-bottle out there that’s going to take away our problems--and for 65% of us, that’s excess body weight. Unfortunately, hoodia is no miracle-in-a-bottle, so if you’re going to lose weight and keep it off, you’re still going to have to do it the old-fashioned way: eat less, exercise more.

References:
  1. MacLean DB, 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;1020(1-2):1-11.

  2. Tulp OL, Harbi NA, Mihalov J, DerMarderosian A. Effect of hoodia plant on food intake and body weight in lean and obese LA/Ntul//-cp rats. FASEB J 2001;15(4):A404.

  3. Tulp OL, Harbi NA, DerMarderosian A. Effect of hoodia plant on weight loss in congenic obese LA/Ntul//-cp rats. FASEB J 2002; 20;16(4):

    Link to the 60 Minutestranscript.

    Link to the 60 MinutesBBC transcript.
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