Around the time I turned 50, something disappointing happened. After a few years of struggling with insomnia and depression — and associated bad habits — I gained a significant amount of weight.
I would catch sight of my silhouette in a shop window and think: ‘Who is that?’ The turning point was when I struggled to put my socks on as I couldn’t see over my stomach.
Until my mid-40s, I had been lucky: a naturally active person, I never had to watch what I ate.
But even though I adopted a healthier diet and boxercise (an intense training class based on boxing) — I even splashed out on a twice-weekly personal trainer — those extra pounds around my stomach just wouldn’t go away.
The new probiotic supplement called ShapeLine (pictured) promises to help people lose weight
So imagine my excitement when I heard about a new probiotic supplement called ShapeLine, which promised to help people — particularly ‘midlifers’ like me — shed their spare tyre.
The claims were grand. ‘ShapeLine is the first probiotic really to offer proven weight loss, alongside other acknowledged health benefits,’ says Dr Nigel Plummer, the microbiologist whose firm, Pro-Ven, is behind the product.
‘In the largest clinical study of its kind, participants saw a reduction of weight, waist circumference and BMI [body mass index] after taking just one capsule a day.’
The best results were found in people over 50. But what makes the results so impressive is that the 440 participants in the study (the results of which were published yesterday in the journal Scientific Reports) did not alter their diet or take up a new exercise regimen. In other words, they swallowed the pill and ate as normal.
Julian Marchesi, a microbiologist at Imperial College London, who co-authored the study but was not paid by the company, describes the results as: ‘A potential game-changer in weight-loss science.’
So, can such a claim really be justified?
ShapeLine contains a blend of five strains of probiotics — so‑called ‘good’ bacteria that are thought to improve the health of the microbiome, the community of trillions of bacteria, fungi and viruses that colonise our gut and other areas of the body.
It’s understood they play a key role in everything from aiding our digestion to maintaining a healthy immune system.
Professor Marchesi says: ‘In order to function properly, the microbiome needs to be a diverse community.’
If one strain of bacteria is wiped out, another becomes more dominant, and this can lead to issues.
ShapeLine contains a blend of five strains of probiotics — so‑called ‘good’ bacteria that are thought to improve the health of the microbiome
An imbalance of bacteria has been implicated in any number of ailments, from allergies to inflammatory bowel conditions, type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Studies have found that lean and overweight people have different gut bacteria.
‘Some patterns of microbiome appear to affect the risk of becoming overweight or obese,’ says Dr Plummer.
How the magic tablet works
The new pill contains five different probiotics — ‘good’ bacteria — that are thought to influence the gut and limit the absorption of fat.
In particular, the bacteria inside the probiotic ShapeLine pill may promote the production of bile (the fluid made and released by the liver, which plays a role in fat metabolism).
‘In other words, the probiotic helps the person burn more fat, simultaneously lowering their ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol,’ says Professor Julian Marchesi, a microbiologist at Imperial College London.
‘For example, research has shown that high levels of antibiotic use (which can wipe out good, as well as bad, bacteria) in infants is associated with weight gain in later childhood and probably adulthood.’
The five different strains of bacteria in ShapeLine are from the same families of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria that are used to produce yoghurt and other fermented foods, such as sauerkraut.
In 2018, Dr Plummer’s team set up clinical trials involving people aged 30 to 65 with a BMI of between 25 (defined as ‘overweight’) and 34.9 (‘obese’) who also had raised cholesterol. One group took a daily capsule for six months, another took a placebo.
Whereas those in the placebo group didn’t lose any weight, those taking the probiotic lost, on average, 3lb each over six months.
But the best results were in those over 50 — especially those with high cholesterol, who lost an average of 7lb. An identical second study had equally impressive results, with participants losing an average of 5lb and 2cm off their waist after only three months.
Their ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol decreased by 8.6 per cent and they also reported a 40 per cent reduction in upper respiratory tract infections and 30 per cent fewer headaches.
Ana Ivanova, 56, an assistant university professor from Sofia in Bulgaria, took part in the trial.
‘From the age of 30 onwards, I was particularly prone to accumulating fat around my stomach and hip area,’ she says. ‘Even though I exercise between one and three hours a week, I couldn’t lose it.’
During the study, Ana lost an impressive 11lb and saw an increase in energy levels and mood.
It is thought this ‘magic pill’ works by promoting the production of bile (see box, above left).
And unlike other weight-loss drugs such as orlistat (sold over the counter as Alli), there are no reported nasty side-effects, such as oily stools.
Peter Whorwell, a consultant gastroenterologist and a professor of medicine at Manchester University NHS Trust, says the mechanism is plausible, but warns: ‘Some people will see this as carte blanche to stuff themselves, and that won’t work.’
He also says that, as with most medication, ShapeLine is unlikely to work for all.
‘Some choices work for some people; others do not,’ he says. ‘The trial results sound good, but results don’t always make the jump from medical trials to the general population.’
Probiotics may not be suitable for all. In April 2019, scientists in Texas found that they could lower the effectiveness of immunotherapy in cancer patients; and a study in Israel published last November in the journal Nature Medicine revealed that probiotics could cause blood infections in intensive care patients.
Dr Plummer is clear on the limits of his supplement. ‘Taking ShapeLine is not a licence to eat chocolate and other high-calorie foods,’ he says. ‘If you are expecting to lose a stone in two months, this is not going to happen.’
Indeed, while some patients such as Ana lost nearly a stone, others dropped merely 3lb in six months — or less than a pound every two months. Not much, given that ShapeLine, which goes on sale next month, costs £29.95 for a pack of 30 capsules.
‘If you keep taking ShapeLine beyond six months, you will continue to drop the pounds,’ says Dr Plummer. ‘However, the rate at which you lose it may slow down. If you cease taking the probiotic, its beneficial effect will dissipate.’
So is it worth trying? Professor Whorwell believes so.
‘At the very worst, it is harmless — it’s not a drug and has no side-effects,’ he says. ‘But if, as reported, this probiotic helps people lose abdominal fat, that is a good thing. Central obesity correlates with many health problems, particularly heart disease.’
As for me, I’ve now been taking the probiotic for a month. I’ve probably only lost a pound or so, but bear in mind this covered the food-fest of the Christmas period (which lasted two weeks in my household). Normally, at this time of year, I would be a couple of pounds heavier than I am now.
Only time will tell for me and the others tempted to try it.
Office health hazards
How your office habits harm your health. This week: Eyes
The office worker of the future may have permanently bloodshot eyes, ‘likely from a combination of the air‑conditioning, fans and static electricity you find in the average office, and the fact that when we use computers we stare straight ahead, which leaves our eyes more open than when we look down at books or even our smartphones’, says Claire O’Donnell, an optometrist from eye hospital group Optegra.
On top of this, a 2012 study found that poor screen set-up, including small character sizes or excess glare, caused people to tighten eye muscles, leading to pain and fatigue in as little as two hours.
To reduce risk, make your screen’s characters larger, move it to avoid glare and ‘take regular short breaks where you do noncomputer related tasks’, says Claire.