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CLA - Miracle Pill or Supplement Scam?

Is there anything we can't cure in rats?
Is there anything we
can't cure in rats?

In 1978 researchers discovered a trans fatty acid that was unlike any they had ever seen. They called it "Conjugated Linoleic Acid," which supplement companies now refer to as CLA.

Early studies were promising.

It reduced body fat in rats while increasing lean muscle. It boosted rodent's immune systems. CLA even seemed to be able to fight cancer in a petri dish. All that was needed now was research to prove the same things would apply to humans.

Supplement companies had other ideas.

As soon as a process was perfected of extracting CLA from plants, typically safflower and sunflower oils, supplement companies began promoting it.

"It's a weight loss drug, a muscle builder and a deterrent to heart disease and diabetes. Take enough and it can boost your immune system and even fight off cancer!" The claims poured out with little regard for the facts.

CLA Pills
CLA Pills

The simple question that people wanted answered is, does it work? So far, researchers say yes, but in an extremely limited and potentially dangerous way.

In 2000 Erling Thom and Ola Gudmundsen of Scandinavian Clinical Research concluded that "CLA reduces body fat but not body weight in healthy exercising humans of normal body weight." Not the rousing endorsement CLA supplement companies were hoping for...but more studies were coming.

A study presented in Los Angeles at Digestive Disease Week 2006 showed that obese or overweight people who took CLA supplements daily lost weight versus those taking a placebo. Unfortunately, the subjects only lost an average of 3 pounds...after 6 months of CLA...and the study was funded by Lipid Nutrition...a manufacturer of CLA weight loss products. As if that wasn't suspect enough, the chief researcher was Sandra Einerhand, an employee of Lipid Nutrition.

In March, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that in another study, researchers concluded obese people who took CLA supplements for a year didn't lose any more weight than those on a placebo.

One of the most quoted studies was released in 2006 and called "The Norwegian Study." In that experiment, 60 participants were not allowed to diet, but they took CLA and lost weight. The weight loss was "equal to a 160-lb person losing 2-3 lb over three months," says researcher Ola Gudmundsen, PhD, managing director of Scandinavian Clinical Research.

If you think that sounds good, consider this. The average diet and exercise program is designed to help people lose 1-2 pounds a week, not 1-2 pounds over three months.

Now for the really bad news. As of September 2007, researchers still aren't even sure how CLA works. What they do know is it can have some negative effects.

In several studies, the subjects who took doses higher than 3 grams of CLA daily had slightly higher LDL or "bad" cholesterol and slightly lower HDL or "good" cholesterol compared to the control groups.

Most of the studies widely quoted, administer CLA in dosage amounts from 3 to 6 grams daily.

People who took CLA also had higher leptin and lipoprotein levels; both considered heart disease markers. The only thing proponents of CLA supplementation suggest to deal with this problem is a short statement we found at the bottom of one website, "it may be wise for those using CLA to have their blood fats monitored by a physician."

That's not all. CLA subjects also had higher white blood cell counts, which could lead to damaging artery inflammation.

To top it all off, new research is showing that the CLA found in pill form may promote insulin resistance, raising glucose levels.

CLA Supplement manufacturers claim it's perfectly safe, but their claims are not backed up by the science.

If you're thinking about taking CLA supplements, you should understand that knowledge of the risks and benefits of CLA are far too rudimentary for anyone outside of a clinical trial, to consider CLA supplementation. If you're trying to build muscle and lose fat, do what doctors have recommended for decades. Exercise and eat a nutritionally balanced diet.

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CAUTION: Check with your doctor before
beginning any diet or exercise program.

Updated 4/23/2014