But Does Crushed Crab Shell Diet Work?
Eat Fat, Lose Weight?



The substance chitosan, around for years, supposedly absorbs the fat put in the stomach before it has a chance to attach itself to hips or legs.

"It's like a really powerful sponge that absorbs 12 times its weight in fat," says an operator taking orders for Fat Absorb. The downside? "You may have to go to the bathroom more than usual."

Chitosan is made of crushed crab and lobster shells
Chitosan, made of crushed crab and lobster shells, is being advertised as a natural cure for obesity (ABCNEWS.com)

L O S   A N G E L E S,   Sept. 16 — Never fond of the phrase "too good to be true," dieters are embracing a new weight-loss fad that does not require exercise bicycles, salads or prescription diet drugs.
     The latest diet has an added benefit: you have to eat fat in order for it to work. It is based on chitosan, a substance sold in many health food stores for years that supposedly absorbs the fat you put into your stomach before it has a chance to attach itself to your hips or thighs.
     Chitosan is nothing more than crushed crab and lobster shells, nondigestable fibers that bind to fat. It has had a small following for years but demand is surging thanks to a new book, a growing trend toward "natural" remedies and satisfied consumers spreading the word over the Internet.
     Dr. Arnold Fox, author of The Fat Blocker Diet published in May, says at least 20 companies have recently jumped on the chitosan bandwagon. The claims they make vary but some present it as a dieter's dream—an invitation to sit back and eat everything in sight.

'The Only Thing I Like to Do is Eat'
"I don't like to exercise, I don't like to work out. The only thing I like to do is eat," proclaims an actor in a late-night "infomercial" for one brand known as Fat Absorb.
     "You don't have to exercise and you don't have to diet," he is advised as a toll-free number to place orders flashes at the bottom of the screen. "Take six capsules of Fat Absorb ... and the fat you eat is eliminated from your system."
     "It's like a really powerful sponge that absorbs 12 times its weight in fat," says an operator taking orders for Fat Absorb. The only downside, she says, is that "you may have to go to the bathroom more than usual."

Nutritionists: It's 'Snake Oil'
But as eternally hopeful overweight consumers rush to buy the product, many nutritionists are crying "snake oil."
     "A whole host of these chitosan products are coming out, but there is little evidence to support them," said Dr. David Levitsky, professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University. "If it really absorbs fat, and I'm not so sure it does, it would cause major problems leading to diarrhea, also causing you to lose your fat-soluble vitamins."
     Levitsky says a fat blocker could also block absorption of medicines such as birth control pills, and he cites evidence that removing fat from the intestines may increase appetite, negating the results of the fat blocker.

Not All Label Drug 'Miracle'
Not everyone promoting chitosan claims it is a miracle drug. Fox, for one, advises it be used along with exercise and sensible eating. "I'm totally against telling people to eat whatever they want," he said. "No diet allows for splurging."
     But Fox says chitosan does let you fall off the diet wagon once in a while. Someone who eats in moderation all week can reward himself with an ice cream sundae provided he takes some chitosan first, he said.
     "My wife carries a bag of the capsules in her purse and we take them right before we go out to dinner," said Fox, who is 69 and credits 15 years of chitosan for his athletic frame.
     Fox said he has seen a success rate of about 80 percent in the 500 patients he has put on chitosan diets. His book includes some of their stories, from a slightly pudgy man who used it to take off love handles to an obese man who says chitosan helped him lose more than 100 pounds.

Lacks Extensive Medical Data
What the book does not include is extensive medical data. A few clinical trials outside the United States have shown that chitosan does have some weight loss benefits, but no serious research has been conducted in this country.
     This does not seem to bother advocates, who say many drugs that have gone through rigorous testing and won Food and Drug Administration approval have later been associated with severe health risks.
     The popular fen-phen combination of two FDA-approved diet drugs has been linked with potentially fatal heart valve damage, and another FDA-approved drug, Redux, carries warnings of a risk of a serious lung disorder in a small percentage of users. Drug companies pulled both off the market this week after the FDA raised new safety concerns about them.
     Because chitosan is classified as a food supplement and not a drug, it does not need FDA approval. And because it is a natural substance that no company can patent, there is little financial incentive to conduct extensive studies.
     "It potentially could be great," Cornell's Levitsky conceded. "That's why we need studies. But it's a natural product and why would a company waste money on studies if they can't patent it?"