March 5th, 2012
Does Chewing Gum Help You Lose Weight?
Does chewing gum help you lose weight or burn fat? This question has been investigated by scientists before and chewing gum as a weight loss strategy even got some mainstream pub thanks to The Biggest Loser. The idea looked plausible, even promising, but a new study has shed a different light on the subject. Researchers at the University of Alabama conducted an 8-week randomized controlled trial and the results were published in the March 2012 issue of the journal Obesity. Read on to see what they discovered…
There are probably two types of people reading this article. One is the person thinking, “Yeah right – chew gum to lose weight? That’s stupid, how could that ever work? How gimmicky can you get? And why would any University even bother to study this?”
The other is thinking, “Actually it could be possible. I mean, what if you got a hankering for a big chewy Cinnabon, but instead you said, ‘Nah, I’ll just chew sugar free gum instead – at least I get to taste something.’ If that happened, you successfully dodged an 800 calorie calorie-bomb! That’s big, right?”
“Or what if chewing gum suppressed your appetite? Or maybe… and this might seem a bit far fetched at first, but what if you chewed gum all day long and that actually added to the day’s Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)? Well, why not? Obesity researchers list “fidgeting” under NEAT, so why not chewing?”
So… I think we could concede that it’s not so ridiculous after all that so many people ask about this and in fact, this new study was undertaken because some suggestions were made in past research that there was something to it.
James Levine, the top authority on NEAT, published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine back in 1999 that examined the calories burned in chewing gum (I’m not kidding, it’s cited in the references below). NEAT is actually a very significant and extremely overlooked contributor to daily calorie expenditure. Most people (unless they use a Bodybugg or similar device) are shocked when they find out how much little things each day can add up over time. But could gum chewing add up to anything worth talking about?
Levine thought so. He reported an increase of 11 +/- 3 kcal per hour increase above baseline. His paper concluded:
“Gum chewing is sufficiently exothermic that if a person chewed gum during waking hours and changed no other components of energy balance, a yearly loss of more than 5 kg of body fat might be anticipated. Chewing of calorie-free gum can be readily carried out throughout the day, and its potential effect on energy balance should not be discounted.”
Holy bubble yum batman! 5 kg of body fat lost per year?
That is indeed what they estimated, but hold on a minute, don’t soil yourself with excitement just yet. First of all, that would assume you’d be chewing all the time. But more important, all they did was measure energy expenditure of chewing for an hour. They didn’t even measure weight loss or body composition. They simply extrapolated the hourly burn that was actually measured in the short term to what it would theoretically add up to in a year.
…and THAT happens a LOT in weight loss research, and…. unfortunately… entire (fad diet) books have been written based on similar hypotheses: one little idea pulled from a study where they never ever measured body fat or change in weight over the long term!
So back to the recent study. This one was a randomized controlled trial (RCT), which is considered the gold standard for research studies. Up until now, there were no RCT’s about chewing gum, so all we had was speculation about what might happen to weight loss and body fat if the gum chewing were continued for an extended period.
James Shikany and his team at the University of Alabama conducted the 8-week RCT in 201 overweight and obese adults to test the hypothesis that chewing gum (along with receiving printed material on good nutrition) for a minimum of 90 minutes a day would lead to greater weight loss than receiving printed nutrition information only.
The compliance to the gum chewing was high (>95%), which you’d well assume – I mean, it’s tough to get people to jog 30 minutes a day for 8 weeks, but pop a stick of gum in your mouth and chew for 90 minutes - no problem, right?
The researchers measured for body weight as the primary outcome, with BMI, waist circumference and blood pressure as secondary outcomes. I always like to see body composition (fat vs muscle) measured, but oh well.
“A regular schedule of gum chewing and the provision of nutrition information did not result in significant differential changes in body weight, other anthropometric measures, or blood pressure compared to a nutrition information only group over 8 weeks.”
There’s a big takeaway from this study and I already revealed it, but let me re-emphasize and re-phrase it. It’s not even just about chewing gum, it’s bigger than that.
The main take away (unrelated to gum per se) is that there are stacks of trials showing no effect of a proposed weight loss strategy where previous research had suggested it held promise.
Lesson: Wait for the RCT / long term research before you get too excited.
Another lesson: Wait for more than one study (buyer beware if you’re an early adopter in the shady weight loss market).
The researchers hammered this point home and said, “This reinforces the value of basing conclusions on RCT’s addressing weight loss per se as opposed to experiments on perceived intermediary variables such as appetite, food intake or aspects of energy expenditure.”
I see so many people get fooled by marketers waving research studies to sell their “magic diets” and “magic pills” that I want to translate this for you with another example…
You’re surfing the web and you see an ad for “Weird Chinese Tea Burns Fat.” So you click on the link and get sent to a pitch page and lo and behold, not only is it filled with amazing before and after pictures, you actually get a citation to the study that PROVES this “Weird tea” burns fat. You go to pub med. There it is! A study “proves” it! You’re sold… Hey, it’s based on research! You’re convinced!
Well… while the study really did happen and it really did get published in a reputable peer reviewed journal, what they neglected to tell you was that it was a two hour study! They found an increase in energy expenditure (increased thermogenesis) for 120 minutes. They didn’t weigh the subjects. They didn’t measure their body fat. They didn’t chart their progress over time. They have NO IDEA if the “magical fat burning tea” caused actual weight loss!
Two final notes that are both interesting:
First, The Wrigley Science Institute funded the study. Yes, as is Wrigley gum. The gum for the study was provided by the Wm Wrigley Jr. Company. I guess they weren’t too pleased with the outcome. (On a slight tangent, I often find it interesting how most people assume that if a study is corporate sponsored, the results will always turn out in favor of the sponsor… and how if the results don’t turn out the way a person hoped for, if it is corporate sponsored, it’s necessarily biased).
Second, the subjects in this study were surveyed at the end. There was moderate agreement among participants with statements that chewing gum helped reduce cravings for snacks, helped participants stay on their diets, and reduced eating after meals and late-night snacking. There was also moderate agreement with the statement that participants would recommend chewing gum as a tool to help people lose weight. Many people, apparently even this test group, seem to feel that chewing gum does in fact help them. (On the other hand, I know people who say chewing gum just makes them hungrier or actually triggers cravings).
Is it possible that gum chewing might help some people lose weight? Sure, it’s possible – if you chew sugar-free gum and it does actually prevent you from eating , drinking sweetened beverages or it helps stave off a craving or emotional urge for food… and if those effects hold up over time.
But… it didn’t help the large group of subjects in this controlled study… where they DID measure body weight change over time.
I’m sure some people think this is a trite subject, but I’ve been asked about this a lot over the years and I think there are some important lessons here beyond answering the question about chewing gum for weight loss.
PS. I’ve chewed sugar free gum when I was preparing for bodybuilding competition and the diet was very strict, though I did it to have something sweet – I never thought of it as “burning fat” or helping me get leaner per se. What do you think? Helps? Hurts? No Difference? Dumb study?
1.Randomized Controlled Trial of Chewing Gum for Weight Loss. Shikany JM, et al, Obesity 20: 547-552. University of Alabama.
2. The energy expended in chewing gum. Levine J, 341: 2100. New England Journal of Medicine. 2007. Mayo Clinic, Rochester MN.
3. Short term effects of chewing gum on snack intake and appetite. Hetherington MM, Appetite, 48(3), 397-401, 2007. Glasgow Caledonian University.
About Tom Venuto
Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural (steroid-free) bodybuilder, freelance writer and author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle (e-book) and the national bestseller, The Body Fat Solution (Avery/Penguin, hardcover). Tom’s articles have been published on hundreds of websites and he has been featured in IRONMAN, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development, Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Fitness, Men’s Exercise as well as on dozens of radio shows including Martha Stewart healthy living (Sirius), ESPN-1250 and WCBS. Tom is also the founder and CEO of the Internet’s premier fat loss support community, the Burn The Fat Inner Circle