Opinion » Antidote

The Eat Like a Bushman Diet


What can you tell me about a weight-loss pill called Hoodia? My wife has been taking them for a couple of months even though she doesn't think they're working. Is it safe for her to keep taking them?


As a spokesperson for a major brand of Hoodia-containing diet pills, ersatz socialite and reality show deep thinker Anna Nicole Smith is a natural; she never met a drug she didn't like. And since her weight changes with the same speed and proportion as gas prices, I think she, too, must have supply disruptions.

From the moment the FDA removed the supplement Ephedra from the market, the weight-loss industry has been scrambling to come up with the next blockbuster herbal formula, and they might have found it in the South African desert plant named Hoodia Gordonii. Since it was featured on CBS's 60 Minutes about a year ago, this light green, thorny, succulent shrub has become nature's newest golden boy. Originally, only the San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert knew its properties as an appetite suppressant—they used it during persistence hunting, an unrelenting drive to track and fatigue game animals to exhaustion. That kind of magical diet effect doesn't stay secret for long, and soon enough the pharmaceutical bio-pirates had it in their labs attempting to isolate the active compound.

The eventual success of the company Phytopharm to separate out the element that lessens hunger led to the patent of a substance they called P57 (clearly demonstrating a greater facility with Bunsen burners than with creative brand names). This compound seems to work by employing the same system our body uses to sense glucose in the blood. Normally, the part of our brain called the hypothalamus turns off appetite when it detects a rise in blood sugar, and P57 appears to stimulate the same sensors.

Apparently, visions of a huge share of the billion-dollar diet industry led Phytopharm to claim that the San people no longer existed. This assertion came as quite a surprise to the San, who were alive enough to hire an attorney (I sue, therefore, I am). Now a revenue-sharing agreement between the two guarantees that the indigenous people that provided the original knowledge of the plant will benefit from any success.

That success, however, is not yet assured. Only small-scale effectiveness studies have been completed, and although they seem promising, none have been published or reviewed by the scientific community. Similarly, research on safety is sorely lacking. Perhaps a bigger problem lies in actually delivering the product. Pfizer pharmaceutical company had to abandon Hoodia following their failure to create an effective pill form of the active ingredient. It now seems that the appetite suppressant effect requires a significant amount of the actual bitter, spiny, cucumber-like plant that takes years to mature in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. A possible cure for obesity growing where people are starving wins the award for Celestial Irony of the Year.

Nonetheless, when huge demand meets short supply, opportunities for mischief are often too compelling to resist. Countless Hoodia products have made it to the market in record time, and many, many of them contain little or none of the plant. Independent analysis of some of the biggest sellers has demonstrated contents to be everything from fiber and leaves to sawdust. And, of those that actually do contain the plant material, it is not clear if the dried Hoodia has any value at all.

What concerns me most about the appetite suppressant effect of this plant is the possibility of toxicity. Some plants defend themselves with mild poisons against animals that might feed on them, the resulting sickness assures the plant's survival. If hunger loss in humans is the result of a toxin, it makes sense to wait until safety studies are completed before downing the equivalent of dozens of these thorny cucumbers. What's safe for Bushmen to eat twice a year tracking antelope might not be such a good idea for you to eat twice a day on a similar hunt for cheesecake.

I know it's hard not to trust Anna Nicole Smith—she's got a certain quality that makes you just want to leave her all your money—but your wife is not likely getting any benefit from the pills she's taking and the risk is still unknown. She might actually be relieved to hear you would rather she quit the diet pills, but that's hard to predict. And, though I doubt she'd be overly influenced by the former Playmate of the Year, before having that talk—and just to be sure—I'd check my pre-nuptial agreement.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send your thorny cucumbers and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).