Prickly pear is thought to help lower cholesterol, manage diabetes and treat the symptoms of an enlarged prostate, but its potential weight loss application has sparked a proliferation of supplements and the resultant breathless marketing. Before you get excited about another "all-natural" pill that will make the pounds "melt away," it is important to understand that prickly pear is relatively untested, and virtually unproved -- especially in relation to weight loss. Considering that there are multiple proven weight loss aids available, prickly pear is probably not your best choice.
There is some evidence that prickly pear can be a beneficial supplement. A 1996 study in the "Journal of Ethnopharmacology" found that prickly pear extract stabilized blood glucose levels remarkably well in diabetic rats, even after insulin was removed. The researchers were unable to determine how or why this happened, but concluded that human studies were needed. A 2004 study in "The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition" determined that consumption of fresh prickly pear led to increased antioxidant levels and decreased oxidative damage in humans -- it was postulated that the vitamin C content of the fruit was the cause, but the control group that received only vitamin C did not experience a reduction in oxidative stress. The researchers concluded that prickly pear contains a powerful dose of antioxidants, and may contain other ingredients that may play a similar role.
Blood sugar control and antioxidant supplementation may indeed be helpful during weight loss. Steady blood sugar can reduce cravings for high-calorie simple carbs and sugary foods, and can help to keep energy levels steady throughout the day. Certain antioxidants -- like the polyphenols in green tea -- have been shown to increase calorie burn and fat oxidation, although it has not been determined if prickly pear contains these particular antioxidants. If weight loss is your goal, eating the whole prickly pear fruit may be more helpful than swallowing a pill.
Fresh prickly pear fruit is sold in some grocery stores, and can be eaten whole. It has a very high water and fiber content -- livestock studies have shown that cows fed prickly pear fruit consumed consumed much less water than those on regular feed -- five pounds as opposed to 95 pounds. These same cows also developed intestinal blockages over time, due to the high fiber content -- being ruminants, the fiber became lodged in the rumen, resulting in death. Humans have a different digestive system, however, and it is well-known that increased fiber and water content can aid in weight loss by helping you feel full, moving your bowels and flushing out water retention. These benefits are lost, however, in a capsulized extract.
The effectiveness of prickly pear is yet untested and unknown when it comes to weight loss, so be wary of depending upon it for success. Weight loss can be achieved without supplements by increasing your calorie expenditure through exercise and decreasing your calorie consumption. If you are determined to use a weight loss aid, green tea has been shown to be effective and your doctor can prescribe prescription appetite suppressants. If you decide to use prickly pear anyway, consult your doctor first if you are taking medications, other herbal supplements or have any chronic condition.
- "Journal of Ethnopharmacology"; A Purified Extract From Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia fuliginosa) Controls Experimentally Induced Diabetes in Rats; Augusto Trjo-Gonzalea, et al.; December 1996
- "The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition"; Supplementation with Cactus Pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) Fruit Decreases Oxidative Stress in Healthy Humans: A Comparative Study with Vitamin C; Luisa Tesoriere, et al.; August 2004
- Texan A&M Univeristy, Cooperative Extension: Nutritional Value and Use of Prickly Pear for Beef Cattle; Joe C. Paschal