Arguably, belief is central to our human nature; sometimes we have faith in what cannot be seen, in what cannot be proven by science or logic. When it comes to diet pills, such blind faith is sadly misplaced.

New findings from the Consumer Reports National Research Center say that more than one quarter of surveyed supplement users had purchased a diet pill believing it to be safe and more effective than other weight loss methods. Unfortunately, losing weight is not so easy or glamorous as taking a perfect pill.

Persistence Pays

In a September published study of obese and overweight people, researchers investigated the results of name brand, so to speak, diets, such as Atkins, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, and the Zone. What did they find? “Significant weight loss was observed with any low-carbohydrate or low-fat diet,” the researchers concluded. “Weight loss differences between individual named diets were small.” Ultimately, then, the researchers support the practice of “recommending any diet that a patient will adhere to in order to lose weight.”

There are no short cuts or special formulas, then. And, tempting though it may be to believe, there are no magic pills. For anyone and everyone, losing weight is simply hard work.

And for this reason it is disheartening to read the results of the Consumer Report survey of 3,000 Americans, which found one-third of the supplement users didn’t lose any weight. While another third of the participants did lose some weight, only nine percent of the diet pill users reported losing all the weight they set out to lose. Yet, Consumer Reports notes a full 85 percent of those who lost weight while taking diet pills were also on a diet or exercise program — it's not clear, then, whether the weight loss resulted from the pill or their dieting.

Overall, this is not so bad, you may be thinking. At best, you lose the weight, while at worst, using a diet pill equals no weight loss and a few dollars wasted.

It's not that simple, though. Nearly half of the supplement users reported experiencing side effects, including a rapid heart rate, dry mouth, or digestive problems, such as diarrhea. And, because the pills are “natural,” many dieters assume they’re safer than prescriptions drugs. This is true in some cases, but in other cases, not so much.

Supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and so some may contain banned substances. Even in the case of a reputable manufacturer creating an honest product — and such manufacturers do exist — weight loss products can interact with prescription drugs. Yet, most of the survey participants didn’t inform their doctors about using supplements, and more than a third were taking a prescription medication at the same time as their diet pill, so know it or not, they had opened the door to potentially life-threatening side effects. Diet aids, then, may very well be bad news for many unsuspecting people.

Despite these warnings, Consumer Reports also offers hope.

Survey Says

Last year, the venerable magazine conducted its own reader survey to find the best diet plans and tools. The skinny on dieting? The magazine’s 9,000 survey respondents generally gave low-cost, do-it-yourself diets higher scores than commercial diets. They also placed a diet which included a free smart-phone app and website on the favorite list.

Generally, survey participants gave higher marks to diets that helped them maintain their weight loss and prescribed lifestyle changes that were easy to make. Finally, on all 13 diets included in the poll, the median weight loss amounted to about 18 pounds for men and 15 pounds for women — just enough to move the dial from obese to overweight or from overweight to a healthy weight.

In other words, weight loss is both real and achievable. Unfortunately, there's only one way to get there: exercise and calorie restriction.