The substance chitosan, around for years, supposedly absorbs
the fat put in the stomach before it has a chance to attach
itself to hips or legs.
a really powerful sponge that absorbs 12 times its weight in
fat," says an operator taking orders for Fat Absorb. The
downside? "You may have to go to the bathroom more than
made of crushed crab and lobster shells, is being
advertised as a natural cure for obesity
O S A N G E L E S, Sept. 16
Never fond of the phrase "too good
to be true," dieters are embracing a new weight-loss fad
that does not require exercise bicycles, salads or
prescription diet drugs.
The latest diet has an added
benefit: you have to eat fat in order for it to work. It is
based on chitosan, a substance sold in many health food
stores for years that supposedly absorbs the fat you put
into your stomach before it has a chance to attach itself to
your hips or thighs.
Chitosan is nothing more than
crushed crab and lobster shells, nondigestable fibers that
bind to fat. It has had a small following for years but
demand is surging thanks to a new book, a growing trend
toward "natural" remedies and satisfied consumers spreading
the word over the Internet.
Dr. Arnold Fox, author of The
Fat Blocker Diet published in May, says at least 20
companies have recently jumped on the chitosan bandwagon.
The claims they make vary but some present it as a dieter's
dreaman invitation to sit back and eat everything in
'The Only Thing I Like to Do is
"I don't like to exercise, I don't like to work out. The
only thing I like to do is eat," proclaims an actor in a
late-night "infomercial" for one brand known as Fat
"You don't have to exercise and you
don't have to diet," he is advised as a toll-free number to
place orders flashes at the bottom of the screen. "Take six
capsules of Fat Absorb ... and the fat you eat is eliminated
from your system."
"It's like a really powerful sponge
that absorbs 12 times its weight in fat," says an operator
taking orders for Fat Absorb. The only downside, she says,
is that "you may have to go to the bathroom more than
Nutritionists: It's 'Snake
But as eternally hopeful overweight consumers rush to buy
the product, many nutritionists are crying "snake oil."
"A whole host of these chitosan
products are coming out, but there is little evidence to
support them," said Dr. David Levitsky, professor of
nutrition and psychology at Cornell University. "If it
really absorbs fat, and I'm not so sure it does, it would
cause major problems leading to diarrhea, also causing you
to lose your fat-soluble vitamins."
Levitsky says a fat blocker could
also block absorption of medicines such as birth control
pills, and he cites evidence that removing fat from the
intestines may increase appetite, negating the results of
the fat blocker.
Not All Label Drug
Not everyone promoting chitosan claims it is a miracle drug.
Fox, for one, advises it be used along with exercise and
sensible eating. "I'm totally against telling people to eat
whatever they want," he said. "No diet allows for
But Fox says chitosan does let you
fall off the diet wagon once in a while. Someone who eats in
moderation all week can reward himself with an ice cream
sundae provided he takes some chitosan first, he said.
"My wife carries a bag of the
capsules in her purse and we take them right before we go
out to dinner," said Fox, who is 69 and credits 15 years of
chitosan for his athletic frame.
Fox said he has seen a success rate
of about 80 percent in the 500 patients he has put on
chitosan diets. His book includes some of their stories,
from a slightly pudgy man who used it to take off love
handles to an obese man who says chitosan helped him lose
more than 100 pounds.
Lacks Extensive Medical
What the book does not include is extensive medical data. A
few clinical trials outside the United States have shown
that chitosan does have some weight loss benefits, but no
serious research has been conducted in this country.
This does not seem to bother
advocates, who say many drugs that have gone through
rigorous testing and won Food and Drug Administration
approval have later been associated with severe health
The popular fen-phen combination of
two FDA-approved diet drugs has been linked with potentially
fatal heart valve damage, and another FDA-approved drug,
Redux, carries warnings of a risk of a serious lung disorder
in a small percentage of users. Drug companies pulled both
off the market this week after the FDA raised new safety
concerns about them.
Because chitosan is classified as a
food supplement and not a drug, it does not need FDA
approval. And because it is a natural substance that no
company can patent, there is little financial incentive to
conduct extensive studies.
"It potentially could be great,"
Cornell's Levitsky conceded. "That's why we need studies.
But it's a natural product and why would a company waste
money on studies if they can't patent it?"