Ask the RD
Question: Do safflower oil supplements help with weight loss? I have heard they are especially good for reducing belly fat.
Answer: The safflower oil and weight loss story is a great example of what can happen when one small study gets more media attention than it really deserves. The study you’re thinking of, which was covered all over the media and the internet, looked at the effects of safflower oil as well as conjugated linoleic acid (found in animal fats) on body composition and concluded that supplementation may be helpful for weight loss (Norris 2009).
So, should you run out and buy safflower oil supplements? Not so fast. The study didn’t find that safflower oil supplementation led to a reduction in body mass index or in overall fat mass, though it did show small reductions in abdominal fat and small increases in lean tissue in subjects who took 8 grams of safflower oil per day. The study included just 35 women, and they were postmenopausal women with type 2 diabetes, so the results may not be relevant to men, younger women or people without type 2 diabetes. This is one of those instances when nutritionists say much more research is needed before we can draw firm conclusions about safflower oil and body composition.
Safflowers are pretty, yellow-orange flowers that have been grown for their oil-rich seeds, possibly for thousands of years. Safflower seed oil is high in oleic acid, the monounsaturated fatty acid found in olive oil, and also contains polyunsaturated fatty acids (Savva & Kafatos 2016). It has a mild flavor and a relatively high smoke point, which makes it versatile for cooking.
There is good evidence that restricting healthy fats in the diet isn’t advisable for managing weight. A very large study of older people found that following a higher-fat Mediterranean diet rich in either olive oil or nuts had very little effect on body weight compared with eating a lower-fat control diet (Estruch 2016). While taking safflower oil supplements may not lead to weight loss, there is no need to avoid using healthy fats like safflower oil if you are trying to lose weight.
Estruch, R. et al. 2016. Effect of a high-fat Mediterranean diet on bodyweight and waist circumference: A prespecified secondary outcomes analysis of the PREDIMED randomised controlled trial. Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, 4, 666-76.
Norris, L.E., et al. 2009. Comparison of dietary conjugated linoleic acid with safflower oil on body composition in obese postmenopausal women with type 2 diabetes mellitus. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 90, 468-76.
Savva, S.C., & Kafatos, A. 2016. Vegetable oils: Dietary importance. Encyclopedia of Food and Health, 365-72. Amsterdam: Elsevier.