Supplements Slow Weight Gain

Jennifer Love, Ph.D., explains how some common supplements can keep middle-age weight gain from building up.

When you learned of the study that showed these common supplements slow down weight associated with getting older, were you surprised?

Love: Well, there’s no doubt in my mind that diet is a major factor in the development of obesity. We typically think about things like total dietary fats and carbohydrats as being important and not so much about the micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals. But it’s not surprising in a lot of ways that some of those vitamins are found to be related to body weight in the study.

The study involved multi-vitamins, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and chromium. Why would these help prevent weight gain?

Love: They help probably for different reasons, especially with the chromium. Chromium is a supplement that’s been studied for a long time with regard to body composition, and in animals, it seems like it’s pretty effective at increasing lean body mass and decreasing fat mass. The intervention studies where people have been given chromium have actually been pretty weak. There’s not a whole lot of data to support the effect of chromium. But some studies have found a small effect, so I think that that may be a kind of different factor than the B vitamins and the multi-vitamins. There I think you’re probably looking at some marginal nutritional deficiencies that could be stimulating hunger or other factors and leading people to overeat. Or it could be a chicken and the egg question because we know people who are obese tend to have lower levels of vitamin B, vitamin C and perhaps vitamin E. That’s been found in several epidemiological studies. So it’s hard to know which is coming first. Is the deficiency causing the obesity, or does the obesity and the associated poor eating habits actually cause the lower levels of the vitamins?

So something as simple as a multi-vitamin could really help prevent weight gain as we get older?

Love: I don’t know that I would draw that strong of a conclusion. I think that for many people, it’s very hard to get the amount of nutrients that we need in our diets, even to meet the RDAs or DRIs, which are just to prevent deficiency diseases. So, there is certainly nothing wrong with taking a multi-vitamin to sort of enhance overall dietary quality, but to actually cause weight gain, I think I’d have to see a lot more research before I would believe that that was the case.

So if these supplements don’t actually cause weight loss, what are they doing?

Love: One of the hormones that really regulates hunger is insulin, so it’s really responsive to your blood sugar levels. If your blood sugar levels are fluctuating a lot, if you’re not maintaining a constant level of your blood sugar, you’re going to get hungry and you’re going to have cravings and possibly even some binge eating. So the idea, I think, is that one of the things that chromium does and that perhaps some of the B vitamins do is help to stabilize your blood sugar so that you don’t get the big fluctuations in insulin, and so maybe you have less hunger. There is a possible physiological mechanism to why these particular supplements might work, but I think it would need to be documented with further research.

Why are we doomed for weight gain as we reach middle age?

Love: Well, the good news is we’re not doomed. There are ways to offset it. With aging in both men and women, there is typically a decline in muscle mass, usually because we become a lot more sedentary. We decrease our physical activity, and our muscle mass shrinks. As we lose muscle mass, our metabolic rate drops. So it actually takes less and less food to maintain our body weight. Most people of course don’t cut back on their food intake, and so they gain weight and fat over time. The way to offset that is actually through physical activity, exercise, building lean body mass, and helping to offset some of that natural decline in metabolism. There’ve been a number of studies, even in people in their 80s, that have shown you can build lean mass and can get your metabolism back to the level it was when you were in your 20s and 30s to offset that. Women have a special problem because menopause appears to cause excess weight gain apart from aging. So there’s some hormonal factors that are involved that probably affect food intake as well as physical activity. Women have an extra hurdle to get over as they get older because they’re dealing with the hormonal changes that are going on as well.

Is it too early to tell everyone to take all these supplements?

Love: I would say so. As I said, I think there’s plenty of other reasons to make sure you’re getting a good quality multi-vitamin, like just to round out any dietary inadequacies you might have. Obviously, you can get all these foods from your diet if you make a real effort to include a lot of fruits and veggies and whole grains. You can get all the B vitamins and the other things that you need from your diet.

Do these four supplements need to be taken together to reach full benefit?

Love: I don’t think we know at this time whether it’s an independent effect or whether the things have to be taken together. As I said, I think chromium is really probably in a different class. Multivitamins of course contain the B vitamins as well as other things, so that’s probably the same type of thing you could get with a good multivitamin; you’d get your B vitamins. There are some potential toxicities with high doses of chromium picolinate, which is usually what you find on the shelf. It can actually cause some weight gain if you do build lean body mass. So it’s not that it’s always associated with weight loss. So people need to be a little more conscious with chromium than with a multivitamin or B vitamin supplement.

Why did researchers see greater benefits for people who are already overweight or obese than in just the regular person?

Love: I’m guessing that that may relate to the fact that obese populations tend to have lower levels of some of these vitamins compared to lean people from the same sort of environment. So perhaps there’s more of some underlying marginal, sub-clinical deficiency in overweight and obese people. When they were taking the supplements, they got a greater effect, but I don’t think we really know why that would be the case.

I think the thing to keep in mind is that obesity is usually associated with poor dietary quality. So it’s more common in lower socioeconomic groups where access to good quality, especially fruits and vegetables, is poor. Overall, there is a lower dietary quality in people who are obese in this country. So, I think it’s not surprising we would find taking supplements to perhaps offset the lack of dietary quality in the food that is being consumed might have some benefits. But if we can address the food issue, I think it could also perhaps go a long way to preventing some of the imbalances that occur with aging.

At this point do we have any idea how much of the supplements we would need to take to make any kind of a difference?

Love: I don’t think we do in terms of doses. Certainly taking mega doses of any sort of vitamin or mineral can be problematic. So unless someone is particularly recommended by a health care professional to take a mega dose of vitamins, you would want to stick with a fairly routine kind of level of vitamins for both the multi-vitamin and the B vitamin supplements.

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