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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Botanicals Weigh In As Diet Aids

The struggle to achieve or maintain a desired weight is a national obsession fraught with fads, crash diets, pills of every description and thousands of contradictory recommendations. Many natural products consumers want to get off this diet merry-go-round and develop lifestyle habits that help them achieve and maintain a healthy weight. When used in conjunction with regular exercise and a balanced diet, the following three herbs provide support in achieving healthy weight goals.

Also known as golden root or arctic root, this herb is commonly found in the arctic mountain regions of Siberia. Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) root has been used medicinally for hundreds of years. Researchers believe it is the plant's active compounds—rosavin, rosin, rosarin and salidrosid—that provide its health promoting properties, which include breaking down body fat.

Among its benefits, rhodiola appears to activate an enzyme called hormone-sensitive lipase that is capable of breaking down the fat stored in adipose tissue. Once fat is stored in the body's adipose, or fatty tissue, it is hard to shed. That's why some people just can't seem to lose certain fatty spots, including "love handles" or a fatty "tire" around the abdomen.

When rhodiola extract is taken in conjunction with moderate exercise, fatty tissue breakdown increases. In human clinical studies, rhodiola extract, in combination with moderate exercise, produced significant weight loss. In one such study, subjects who took rhodiola prior to one hour of exercise had in their blood 44 percent greater adipose lipase, the enzyme required to burn the body's fat stores, than the placebo group (Archives of Pharmaceutical Research, 2000).

Scientists believe rosavin is the primary active compound that helps the body shed unwanted fat. Recommend to your customers rhodiola extract with standardized levels of rosavin, in combination with regular exercise, for weight loss.

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) has a long history of use throughout Asia and the Middle East for soothing stomach ulcers, promoting lactation and healing various skin conditions. Recently, researchers found that a free amino acid—4-hydroxyisoleucine—present in minute amounts of the common household spice, may play a role in weight loss.

Although 4-hydroxyisoleucine was discovered more than a decade ago, only recently have there been manufacturing methods to extract the amino acid on a commercial scale. Expect to see this ingredient making its way to market in various diet formulas soon.

In several studies, researchers have shown that 4-hydroxyisoleucine plays a valuable role in insulin promotion and glucose regulation, which may help to reduce body fat. The amino acid 4-hydroxyisoleucine stimulates insulin secretion, thereby limiting the extent to which blood glucose is elevated. Elevated blood glucose after meals leads to increased body fat production.

More significantly, the effect of 4-hydroxyisoleucine appears to be glucose dependent, meaning the higher the blood glucose level, the greater the insulin-promoting response elicited by 4-hydroxyisoleucine. By helping to regulate insulin needs, 4-hydroxyisoleucine works as an adaptogen.

In addition to being useful for weight loss, 4-hydroxyisoleucine's insulin-promoting effects may be beneficial to non-insulin-dependent diabetics because standardized 4-hydroxyisoleucine extracts can help to maintain a stable glucose level (Diabetes, 1998).

Soluble fiber in whole fenugreek may also aid in weight loss. These fibers, most notably galactomannans, have been shown to sequester fat. They appear to bind directly to dietary fat and reduce its absorption into the body.

Yerba Maté
Originating in South America, yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis) is a tree now cultivated in Paraguay, Brazil and northern Argentina. Tea made from the tree's leaves was called the "drink of the gods" by indigenous peoples because of its healing effects. Today, the tea is used widely by those trying to lose weight. Because of the presence of two methylxanthines, caffeine and theobromine, the herb supports weight loss through appetite suppression and increased metabolism. In addition, yerba maté is rich in vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

Swiss researchers found that yerba maté may be beneficial as a weight loss aid (Phytomedicine, 1999) and that a decoction of the tree's leaves enhances bile flow and speeds intestinal transit time (Pharmacognosy: Phytochemistry and Medicinal Plants, Intercept Ltd., 1999).

Dried yerba maté naturally contains less than 1 percent caffeine. Yet some standardized extracts contain 2 percent caffeine, approximately four times the caffeine content of dried yerba maté. The more significant active constituent is theobromine. Like caffeine, theobromine is a central nervous system stimulant alkaloid. Although it is appreciably weaker than caffeine, theobromine is a stronger cardiac stimulant, smooth muscle relaxant and diuretic. While dried yerba maté naturally contains approximately 0.03 percent theobromine, some extracts contain 0.2 percent theobromine. This six-fold increase in theobromine gives concentrated yerba maté extracts enhanced metabolic, diuretic and appetite-suppressing properties.

Yerba maté and concentrated plant extracts are ideal for those who wish to suppress appetite and boost metabolism.

Remind your customers that there is no free ride in the weight loss game. No single botanical or other agent can make accumulated pounds magically disappear. Just as weight gain takes time, real weight loss is slow and steady, a couple of pounds per week is considered healthy. Combined with a healthy diet and exercise, these herbs can help your customers look better and feel better about themselves.

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter and the author of Psyche Delicacies: Coffee, Chocolate, Chiles, Kava, and Cannabis, and Why They're Good for You (Rodale, 2000). He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 4/p. 50

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