Can a supplement proven to fight blue moods help stimulate weight loss? “Yes, it can!” say a growing number of experts, who now prescribe a natural compound called 5-HTP (One we like: BRI 5-HTP Supplement, $16 for 120 capsules, Amazon.com.) According to top integrative health expert Tasneem Bhatia, M.D., author of What Doctors Eat, “5-HTP is converted directly to serotonin, and serotonin makes you feel good, feel happy, feel full — and when you feel that way, you’re going to eat less.” In fact, adds Dr. Bhatia, while most appetite suppressants target physical hunger only, this one blunts physical hunger and “works to reduce ‘emotional hunger’ and stress-related urges to eat.” After consulting with a panel of 5-HTP experts — including American Board of Obesity Medicine alum Denise E. Bruner, M.D. — Dr. Oz was impressed. He said the supplements may even be “a secret weapon for hunger!”
If you’re looking for hard proof, we’ve got it: In a University of Rome study, obese women given 5-HTP spontaneously began eating 1,000-2,000 fewer calories per day. And even as their calorie intake plummeted to a level that would leave many dieters irritable, serotonin was soothing these ladies—and not one experienced hunger or diet crankiness. Further boosting spirits: They quadrupled their weight loss compared to folks given a placebo pill. “They ate a lot less than they normally would because it was easy for them,” Dr. Bhatia notes. Hearing that might be enough to inspire you to try the supplement for yourself. So we went ahead and rounded up everything you need to know to get started!
What is 5-HTP?
It’s a compound that the body needs in order to make serotonin, its main “happiness hormone.” Per Dr. Oz, 5-HTP floods the brain with serotonin and helps minimize stress, sadness, anger and anxiety. “5-HTP targets specific emotions that drive us to overeat,” Dr. Bhatia explains. And, as she already mentioned, 5-HTP also reduces physical hunger pangs in addition to emotional cravings. Ideally, the body makes its own 5-HTP from the amino acid tryptophan, found in foods like turkey and bananas. (Why not just eat more turkey or take a tryptophan supplement? If you struggle with mood or weight, it can be a sign that your body has trouble converting tryptophan to 5-HTP.) Besides making it yourself, the only other way to get 5-HTP is from a supplement.
Who is 5-HTP best for? Emotional eaters stand to benefit greatly, of course. So do carb addicts. The carb connection? Turns out carbs help the body make 5-HTP — so when 5-HTP or serotonin are low, carb cravings kick in. Boosting 5-HTP with a supplement has been shown to slash carb cravings by more than 50 percent. And if a “fat gene” runs in your family, early evidence hints that this genetic tendency toward obesity is linked to “decreased activity of an enzyme that helps turn tryptophan into 5-HTP,” explains Michael T. Murray, N.D., author of 5-HTP: The Natural Way to Overcome Depression, Obesity and Insomnia. Though more human research is needed, Dr. Murray believes 5-HTP supplements are a quick fix for the genetic glitch.
How much do I take? Pros suggest 50 mg.-75 mg. about 30 minutes before each meal.
Do I have to diet? Studies show that 5-HTP enhances weight loss even if you continue eating your normal foods. Without a diet, you stand to lose about a pound a week; many folks drop 15 pounds or more without dieting. Of course, 5-HTP works by lowering calorie intake — and the more calories you cut, the more you’ll lose. So if you want to maximize results, try tweaking your diet at the two-week mark, when 5-HTP will have fully kicked in and begun diminishing hunger and carb cravings. Below, we’ve got a version of the diet used in one university study that helped 5-HTP takers lose several times more weight than folks getting a placebo.
Does 5-HTP really work?
When we asked a group of readers to test out 5-HTP for us, they ate unlimited portions of healthy food and still shed up to five pounds in a week. We also talked to women who’d been using 5-HTP long term. Heather Miars started taking 5-HTP for her mood at Dr. Bhatia’s urging. “I was finally able to go off prescription antidepressants and lose 15 pounds!” recalls the Georgia mom, 45. Meanwhile, Audra Holmes tried 5-HTP after developing “mood swings so wild, I was giving people whiplash,” she jokes. On 5-HTP, “I didn’t have the highs and lows. I could suddenly get through the day without naps or comfort food!” She shed 50 pounds in 16 weeks. Wish you could have the same kind of success? Then, as Dr. Oz put it: “5-HTP may be your pre-meal must-have!”
How to eat to make 5-HTP work faster
Our nutrition team created these easy mix-and-match menus using the same guidelines that helped 5-HTP dieters lose weight at top speed during a University of Rome study. The idea here is simple: You’ll eat balanced meals that keep you feeling energized and awesome, but you’ll also watch portions so you’re not overeating out of habit. While using these menus, be sure to drink plenty of water and add any other zero-cal beverages you like. You’re also encouraged to season meals to your liking with unlimited herbs, spices, vinegar, mustard and citrus juice. As always, get a doctor’s okay to try any new plan.
Breakfast (choose one daily)
- 1 bowl any cereal (up to 120 calories)
- 1 cup 1% milk or 100-calorie container Greek yogurt
- 1 serving fruit
- 1 ½ Tbs. nuts
- 4 scrambled egg whites
- 3 slices lite whole-grain toast
- 1 serving fruit 2 tsp. butter or peanut butter
Lunch (choose one daily)
- 1 medium baked potato topped with 3 oz. chopped turkey or chicken and 1 cup broccoli with cheese sauce
- 1 piece fruit
- 1 cup reduced-sodium bean, pea or lentil soup heated with 2 oz. cubed ham; top with 1 tsp. olive oil or 1 Tbs. Parmesan
- Side salad, 2 tsp. lite dressing
- 1 serving fruit
- Pesto Pita: Top two mini whole-grain pitas with 2 tsp. pesto, 3 oz. cooked turkey or baby shrimp and diced tomato; bake to heat through 1/ 2 cup snap peas or steamed green beans
- 1 side salad, 2 tsp. lite dressing
- 1 serving fruit
Dinner (choose one daily)
- 3 turkey meatballs over 3/4 cup pasta, 1/2 cup tomato sauce, 1 Tbs. Parmesan
- 1 cup steamed green beans or zucchini
- Sugar-free gelatin or a sugar-free popsicle
- 3 oz. baked salmon or pork, lemon-pepper to taste
- 1/ 2 cup egg noodles tossed with 2 tsp. butter 2 cups steamed broccoli or any veggie
- 1 pudding cup or any 100-calorie snack or treat
Option 3: * 3 oz. lean burger, 1 thin slice cheese or 2 tsp. mayo, on a whole-grain bun with veggies and mustard to taste * 1 cup bell pepper slices * 1 ear corn or 1 ice-cream treat (up to 100 calories)
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Create your own menus
5-HTP can make just about any diet easier to stick to, so you can choose any plan that appeals to you — or even no plan at all! But if you’re looking for a quick approach proven to work, use guidelines created by University of Rome researchers. They allotted folks 1,200 calories a day, about half from carbs and the rest a mix of lean protein and fat. That means at most sittings, you’ll want to start with 200 calories of carbs, including both starchy carbs and carbs from produce (such as a bowl of cereal with fruit or pasta with veggies). Add about 120 calories of protein (such as some Greek yogurt, egg whites or a few ounces of lean meat). Finish with 80 calories of fat, such as 10 almonds or 2 tsp. olive oil. An easy formula for fast weight loss.
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.