Driven by Americans’ skyrocketing interest in organic and natural products, buzz is building around essential oils — tinctures extracted from plants such as orange, grapefruit and lavender in a way that preserves their aroma. Indeed, they may soon become keto-level trendy: Analysts estimate essential oils will be a $13 billion industryby 2024.
Vendors claim their products can do everything from clear your skin and reduce stress tohelp you sleep. Recently, they’ve become particularly popular with people trying to lose weight. But how effective are they in that respect? And is there a way to use them to optimize their effect? Let’s start with the latter question.
How To Use Essential Oils
Essential oils can be used in three ways:
• Rubbed on the skin (think: massage)
• Placed in a diffuser for aromatherapy
• Added to water or other beverages for consumption (but check the label before you do this; not every variety can be consumed).
Benefits of using essential oils for massage
Some studies have shown that rubbing essential oils on the skin causes some of the plant’s chemicals to be absorbed. There’s no evidence that helps with weight loss, but the aroma might be indirectly helpful. (See below.)
Benefits of using essential oils as aromatherapy
Researchers hypothesize essential oils could help with weight loss because our senses of taste and smell are controlled by the same area of the brain, the parietal lobe.
A tasty scent might stave off snacking because the brain might interpret the aroma as a treat, or distract from hunger pangs. Additionally, some studies have found that aromatherapy might reduce stress and depression. Theoretically, if those conditions are causing you to overeat or skip the gym, and the oils help mitigate that, you might lose weight.
“I’m not aware of any essential oils that can [directly] be useful for weight loss,” says Maggy Doherty, MS, RD, LD, a registered dietitian in Dallas. “However, the smell of them may possibly help distract someone from eating, thus eventually resulting in weight loss. For example, the smell of peppermint essential oil may help someone better concentrate on their work and distract them from food cravings. Or the smell of a lavender essential oil may help someone relax and not turn to food to stress-eat. So, essential oils may indirectly help with weight loss when used to soothe, relax, and distract from eating.”
Benefits of consuming essential oils
Some studies have linked the consumption of certain foods (such as grapefruit) to weight loss, leading some aromatherapy practitioners to claim similar benefits from consuming essential oils made from those foods. Unfortunately, science has yet to provide strong evidence to support that standpoint.
Bottom Line: Can Essential Oils Help You Lose Weight?
Human studies are few and far between, so any connection between the use of essential oils and weight loss is still largely theoretical. “Using essential oils is a somewhat new intervention within the health world,” says Emily Tills, MS, RDN, CDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Syracuse, New York. “There is still very limited research about essential oils and weight loss.”
Common Essential Oils
The rising popularity of essential oils means that, when it comes to shopping for them, consumers now have no shortage of options. Here is a small handful of the most common ones you’re likely to encounter.
Researchers have touted grapefruit as helpful for weight loss for years; studies have found it may help the body burn fat and control appetite. They theorize this is due to limonene, a natural chemical present in citrus fruits.
“While research still remains early for grapefruit oil as a weight loss aid, it is a low-risk option to try,” says Heidi Moretti, MS, RD, a registered dietitian in Missoula, Montana, who uses and sells essential oils.
Researchers have found that peppermint — particularly the scent — could be a weight-loss tool. In a study published in the journal Appetite, people who were exposed to the scent of peppermint oil for two hours felt less hungry and consumed 2,800 fewer calories during the next week (about 300 a day) than study subjects who didn’t. Aromatherapists also use peppermint oil to promote relaxation.
Sweet orange oil
A 2019 study published in the journal Bioscience, Biotechnology and Biochemistry found that obese mice fed microcapsules of sweet orange oil along with a high-fat diet experienced 41 percent less weight gain and lower cholesterol levels compared to a control group. Limonene could be the helpful element here, which you can also introduce to your body by consuming citrus fruits.
Derived from the lemon’s peel, lemon essential oil is rich in limonene, similar to grapefruit.
If you’d like to experiment with essential oils, have realistic expectations. “Essential oils won’t help you lose weight on their own,” says Caleb Backe of Maple Holistics, a New Jersey-based company that sells essential oils. “Using the oils alongside a healthy diet and exercise plan can aid weight loss, but it’s not a remedy in its own right. The weight loss you’ll reap from supplementing your journey with essential oils will largely depend on the input you give beyond the oils themselves.”
Another caveat: “Fruits, vegetables and herbs should be a major part of a healthy diet, but essential oils and supplements are not regulated like prescription drugs, meaning we can’t be 100 percent sure that what we’re using on our bodies, in the air, and ingesting is safe and in the right dosage,” says Tills. “If you’re an avid essential oil user, more power to you. If you’re not right now, let’s wait and see what the research says.”