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Light-weight evidence is not enough

As European Obesity Day approaches, Edzard Ernst looks at the evidence for the use of complementary therapies for weight management

European Obesity Day 2010 (22 May) is aimed at raising awareness, at generating change and at helping to avert the pandemic of obesity that threatens public health worldwide.

About 50% of all Europeans are overweight and there is thus good evidence to show that obesity shortens the life of patients. They are at an unnecessarily high risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, depression, osteoarthritis and many other conditions.

Many CAM treatments are being promoted as effective treatments for obesity:

  • acupuncture: no convincing evidence
  • homeopathy: no convincing evidence
  • hypnotherapy: some encouraging evidence but not conclusive

Numerous manufacturers of herbal and other supplements aggressively promote their products (e.g. Chitosan) for the reduction of body weight. Consumers are often delighted – these remedies promise easy weight loss without side-effects.

My team has had for many years, an active programme in evaluating the clinical evidence for or against such treatments. Unfortunately we have, so far, not identified a single supplement that actually works safely in a clinically-relevant fashion. Several of these products are even burdened with risks (e.g. Ephedra) so that their risk-benefit balance is negative.

Obesity is a serious condition. The unscrupulous marketing of such ‘slimming aids' is therefore most regrettable. The European Obesity Day 2010 should also be an appeal and reminder for all involved to stop misleading vulnerable patients by making false claims about the efficacy of CAM.

Professor Edzard Ernst