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Diet Pills?

By Carrie Carter, M.D.

Q: I want to lose that extra “baby weight,” but haven’t had any luck. Many weight-loss pills and supplements make it sound so easy, and claim they are “all-natural” and safe. Are there any diet aids worth trying?

Is it really that easy?

Generally, weight loss does not happen as easily or quickly as many of the diet aid companies imply. Many companies take advantage of women who feel panicked about needing to lose weight and try to get your money with outlandish claims, like “Guaranteed--the fat will just melt away!” When a diet aid doesn’t work, many women assume that it just didn’t work for them and are too embarrassed to request the refund they deserve.

Are they safe?

The fact that a weight loss pill is sold over-the-counter does not ensure that it is safe for everyone. Because they are considered “nutritional supplements,” the FDA does not test most of these products, so you cannot be certain that what the label says is what is in the bottle! Plus, the claim that a diet aid is “all natural” or “herbal” is not a guarantee of safety. In fact, there are certain natural herbal diet aids that are potentially dangerous to your health. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not use diet aids.

What does the diet aid do?

To be fair, some women find success with diet aids, so let’s look at the different types on the market. If you are considering a diet aid, it is very important that you first know what the diet aid does to help you lose weight and any potentially dangerous side effects.

You can divide weight loss supplements into four groups:

  • Calorie Burners: Make you burn more calories
  • Appetite Suppressors: Make you eat fewer calories
  • Absorption Blockers: Keep you from absorbing some of the calories you ea
  • Wallet Drainers: Those that do not do “diddly-squat.” (In other words, they decrease your bank balance but not your weight.)

Calorie Burners:

Most diet aids fall in this category. They contain stimulants, so they temporarily increase your metabolism and make you burn more calories. But they also often increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety. Many women report a “jittery feeling” on this type of diet aid. Commonly, the effective ingredient in these aids is caffeine, green tea, guarana, or the most dangerous one, the “natural herbal” option called ma huang or ephedra.

Why is ma huang or ephedra dangerous? Deaths from heart attack, stroke, severe anxiety, and psychosis have been reported with even the first dose of ephedra-containing supplements. It is impossible to tell who might have a dangerous reaction to ephedra or ma huang, even at a low dose. Therefore, I strongly recommend you leave this option behind. Look carefully at labels of weight loss supplements to check if ephedra or the herbal name ma huang is in the formulation. You may need to look under the notation “proprietary formula” in order to find it.

There are certainly women who have successfully lost weight with ephedra or ma huang without serious side effects. But you need to ask yourself: is it worth the risk? A safer option is to add cups of regular green tea to your daily diet.

Appetite Suppressants:

Over the counter options that decrease appetite include many of the stimulants listed above, along with Citrimax (fruit from Garcinia cambogia) and CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid). Studies show that Citrimax appears to be a safe choice and suppresses appetite in some women, and may help the user to not regain weight. CLA also appears safe and may or may not be helpful. Some users have less appetite on CLA, while others see no difference.

Many of the prescription weight loss drugs, like Redux, Phen-Phen, Meridia, and Buproprion (or Wellbutrin) operate by decreasing the appetite. But some are linked to serious side effects (such as Phen-Phen and heart valve damage).

Absorption Blockers:

You’ve likely heard about these products with claims like, “Eat all the bread and pasta you want and never gain weight!” In theory, these products block your intestine from absorbing either carbohydrates (Carbo Blockers) or fats (Chitosan), so that more of what goes in comes out.

Carbo blockers are often made from soybeans or white kidney beans, which sound safe. But studies have shown a loss of copper and zinc from the body, and no proven weight loss. Chitosan is a natural product made from the outer skeleton of shellfish that also does not get great marks for effectiveness or safety. Those allergic to shellfish may react to chitosan. Studies have not confirmed consistent weight loss with this product. Plus, if it does work by carrying the fat out “with the trash,” it also may take along the fat-soluble vitamins you just ate (such as vitamins A, D, E and K). Chitosan could also give you diarrhea.

Wallet Drainers:

Be wary of aids that make claims that sound to good to be true. And take them up on their “30-day risk free guarantee” and return the product for refund if it does not deliver as promised.

If you have a serious reaction to a diet aid, please report it to the FDA Med Watch division at 800-332-1088, and the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) at 877-FTC-HELP. By doing so you may protect countless other consumers from having harmful reactions.


© 2003-2006 by Dr. Carrie Carter, all rights reserved.

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