"Smectite" Clay Appears to Fight Obesity More Effectively Than Drugs

"Maybe this could be an anti-obesity treatment."

When a team of scientists in Australia began experimenting with clay particles, they weren’t trying to come up with a weight-loss medication. But in a strange turn of events, they stumbled upon a pill that might be better suited to tackle obesity than the drugs we currently have. This potentially game-changing ball of clay is the focus of a new paper published last week in Pharmaceutical Research.

After her preliminary research, first author Tahnee Dening, Ph.D., turned her attention to two different types of smectite clay particles: montmorillonite, which is sometimes called green clay and exists naturally, and laponite, a synthetic clay traditionally used in research on drug delivery. Dening, formerly at the University of South Australia and now a postdoctoral researcher the University of Kansas, found that these molecules weren’t great for drug delivery were good at absorbing fat molecules in a model of the human gut.

“Maybe this could be an anti-obesity treatment,” Dening tells Inverse. “It’s a material that complexes fat molecules and in theory should lead to an anti-obesity effect because those fat molecules can’t be absorbed by the body.”

pharmaceutical research
Montrollimite and laponite particles up close 

By nature of their unique chemistry and surface area clays, some clays can form complexes with fat molecules freely floating around the gut after a meal. Instead of those fat molecules being broken down by the body and, later on, either burned off or stored, they could be absorbed by the clay particles instead — and simply excreted, says Denning.

When she gave mice (already on fatty diets) either Orlistat (a major obesity medication), laponite, montmorillonite, or a control compound, she found that the montmorillonite absorbed 42 percent of fats in their gut and that the laponite absorbed up to 94 percent. Orilstat, in contrast, absorbed only 70 percent; put another way, it blocked about 30 percent of fat absorption in the gut. In that sense, the clay did outperform Orlistat.

An Important Catch

At the end of the day, however, the mice lost a comparable amount of weight on both treatments. They just lost it in different ways.

Like the clays, anti-obesity medications already on the market work by controlling fat absorption in the intestine. Orlistat, for one, blocks an enzyme that digests fat molecules, making them more difficult to absorb. Clays, which also ultimately decrease the body’s ability to absorb and store fat, could therefore be a potential alternative.

The more important question, however, is whether dietary fat really plays that big a role in obesity in the first place.

keto diet
Dietary fat may not be as big a contributor to obesity as we once believed 

There’s a significant and growing body of research suggesting that the real drivers of persistent obesity have less to do with fatty foods and more to do with portion size and carbohydrate intake. The keto diet, for example, promotes rapid weight loss by using fat as a primary energy source in lieu of carbohydrates. Supporting this idea is a landmark paper on the “carbohydrate-insulin model” released in November, which showed that a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet resulted in more calorie burning at rest. It suggested that obesity is actually driven by carbohydrate consumption, not by dietary fat.

Despite these legitimate criticisms about dietary fat, Orlistat is still prescribed as an anti-obesity drug. The clay particles that Denning discovered are especially interesting in this context because they present an opportunity to help make Orlistat itself more tolerable.

Plans For the Future

Denning and her co-authors envision a clay pill as something you would take with meals. “Three times a day with breakfast, lunch, dinner, or your main meals, you would take a capsule with these clay particles in it,” she says.

But ideally, says Denning, if their study leads to any sort of pill, it would be used in tandem with Orlistat for an important reason: When you pass undigested fat molecules, it leads to a variety of very unpleasant side effects, like flatulence or diarrhea. When people go on Orlistat it is recommended that they reduce their dietary fat intake anyway. Clay might help stave off side effects even more.

“Using these clay particles, we can get a similar effect to Orilstat, but I think one big advantage we see in our particles is that they shouldn’t have the gastrointestinal side effects,” says Denning.

In short, these clay particles might be the first step on the road to a better-performing drug for targeting fat absorption in a more human-friendly way. But the bigger questions about whether that’s the correct target in the first place remain.