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Diet Pills: What You Absolutely Must Know

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Finally some good news for your diet! The Mayo Clinic reports that the right diet pill can help you achieve your weight loss goals. Specifically, a good diet pill can help you achieve clinically meaningful weight loss (~5% of your current weight resulting in a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes)[4].

Now here comes the bad news. Many of the diet pills on the market today are scams. Most are found to achieve zero weight loss, except from your wallet[3]. In fact, some illegitimate diet pill companies will not only sell their useless product at inflated prices, but they may also make unauthorized credit card transactions as a part of your “free” trial. So how can you tell the truth from the hype?

A Look at the Labels of Diet Pills

There are so many diet pills out there claiming to cause miracles that it can be hard to sift through the junk to find the good stuff. Not only that, but you often have to rely on your own knowledge of possibly 10+ ingredients to know if a pill is even worth your money. So before we start diving into the ingredients, let’s review a few basics about labels.

Any ingredient list on a label goes in order. The ingredient listed first makes up the largest percentage of that product. This is probably the one you will look to when making your decision, but keep in mind that the ingredients that follow probably enhance the price more than they enhance your diet.

It is important to note at this point, that the FDA does not regulate diet pills. It is the company’s responsibility to be honest (yikes!). It’s important to realize that products you can buy at the store can have dangerous secrets. These companies want you to lose weight so that you’ll buy more of their product and even tell your friends and family to join you. That means these companies will be willing to put your health at risk to turn a potential profit.

Over the past few decades, numerous diet pills had to be pulled from the market because they secretly contained ingredients that should only be found in prescription weight loss medications. You have been warned. You can still continue ahead and look for your own diet pill, but if you’re over 18 and your body mass index is greater than 30 (or your body mass index is 27 and you have at least one weight-related health condition) then you are eligible for prescription weight loss pills. The best part is you’ll have a doctor monitoring you and your insurance might even cover it! If you do not fall into this category and you still want a pill to emphasize your weight loss then keep reading.


What’s In a Name? Diet Pill Ingredients

So what ingredients should you look for? The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements gives a pretty complete list that’s written for health professionals[5]. For those of you who are not in the dietary field, this article will provide you with the summary you need to make a good decision.

Let’s start with synephrine (also known as bitter orange to the companies who like to use flowery terms to jack up their prices). This ingredient is thought to increase your energy while suppressing your appetite. Studies show that synephrine can increase your energy, but it does little for losing weight. Keep in mind that many companies will state that they increase your energy, which is similar to saying that they increase your metabolism. Often, your energy spike doesn’t burn more calories, but it can help you to keep on track with your lifestyle regarding exercise. Overall, there are very few risks with bitter orange, but you may experience anxiety-like symptoms with hypertension and tachycardia (increased blood pressure and heart rate)[2,5].

The next common ingredient is one of my favorites: coffee (also known as guarana, kola but, and yerba mate for those who want to feel special). Coffee is thought to increase thermogenesis (essentially another pretty word for metabolism) and fat burn. We all know that caffeine can help increase energy that can give you an extra boost in your step when you’re trying to be motivated to work out. Studies have shown that caffeine has a modest impact on weight loss AND it can even decrease weight gain over time.

Now before you start your victory dance, it is important to remember that there are some health risks with caffeine. Monitor your intake, especially because it is easy to get too much when you’re taking a pill. As a rule, you should never have more than 400mg of caffeine per day. If you take too much you run the risk of exposing yourself to long bouts of vomiting and tachycardia, potentially accompanied by fainting spells brought on by dehydration[2,5].

Calcium is often a surprise, price-boosting ingredient. Companies will claim that it decreases your fat absorption and that it can obliterate your fat cells. Needless to say, this one is a hoax. Not only is it an outright lie, it is a dangerous one. If you take in more than ~1,000mg of calcium supplement per day, you put yourself at an increased risk for kidney stones (ouch!) and it can interfere with zinc and iron absorption causing you to become anemic while feeling tired all the time[2,5].

Chitosan is one you may not have heard of yet, but you’ll want to. It is thought to bind dietary fat in the digestive tract. Whether it does or not is still debated, but studies have shown that this miracle ingredient does moderately impact weight loss. The best part is that it comes with minimal risks. The only real downside is that you may be allergic. Try a very small dose before going all out with this one, otherwise you may experience flatulence, bloating, and constipation for a few days if you do have an intolerance for it[2,5].

Chromium is a common filler. Which is odd because chromium is actually shown to have a moderate impact on weight loss. However, it’s another one that you’re going to have to keep track of. There’s virtually no risk if you’re taking 25-45mcg per day, but if you accidentally lose track you will be stuck with headaches, diarrhea, constipation, and weakness[2,5].

Conjugated linoleic acid is another good one for your list. It is thought to kill adipose tissue. Regardless of whether it does, this neat ingredient has been shown to mildly enhance weight loss with few risks. With this one, your main worry is a bout of abdominal discomfort[2,5].

And, of course, there’s ephedra (or ma huang for those trying to get around the FDA). Do not take this! No matter how desperate you get, remember that the ingredient is banned for a reason. You can potentially be subjecting yourself to seizures, heart attack, or death[2,5]. Don’t do it. In fact, if you find yourself drawn to these types of supplements, jump ahead to Protecting Your Health.

Now for the green stuff: green coffee and green tea. Both are thought to increase fat elimination while boosting energy. Luckily, both are shown to have some positive effect on weight loss. They are almost risk free. Your main concern will be their caffeine content[2,5].

Pyruvate is a little less cut-and-dry. It can possibly impact your weight loss with few risks, but the jury’s still out on how well it works[2,5]. At this point, until they come out with more research, just save your money. If you want to check if there is any new research on this ingredient or any other ingredients, Duke University’s DietResearch.com has all the latest scientific literature listed for every ingredient out there.

Fucoxanthin may be another odd one you’ve never heard of and, honestly, you don’t need to know about. It is thought to increase your energy, but research hasn’t shown any benefits. Although it doesn’t seem to pose any threats to your health, it doesn’t benefit it either[2,5].

Glucomannan is interesting. It is thought to help make you feel full, although research denies this claim. What it does do, though, is act like a stool softener[2,5]. Just take the easier and cheaper route and get a true stool softener if that is something you think you need. Or, better yet, eat some healthy fiber.

Guar gum is the same as glucomannan. It’s supposed to make you feel full, but you and your wallet just end up feeling empty[2,5]. Don’t waste your time.

Hoodia (or hoodia gordonii to sound extra special) follows the same theme. It is supposed to suppress your appetite, but it won’t help you feel full. There are few health risks with it, though, if it ends up being an add-on to a diet pill that you do like. Worst case scenario you’ll get a few headaches, some dizziness, nausea, and ultimately vomiting[2,5]. If you can, just go ahead and avoid it and save yourself the cash.

White kidney bean came is often a surprise. Although regularly enjoyed around the southern part of the US, it is not often considered a diet item. However, research has shown that white kidney bean does benefit your weight loss regimen. The unexpected ingredient is thought to interfere with the absorption of fat. Overall, it comes with very few risks. Like the couple of ingredients listed before it, the main concern is soft stool[2,5].

Hydroxycitric acid (also known as garcinia cambogia) is said to inhibit fats and suppress your appetite. But the only thing you should be suppressing with this ingredient is your buying of it. Research has shown that it meets none of its claims. There are few safety risks, but if you do end up taking it you could be in for headaches, nausea, and upper respiratory tract symptoms.

Finally, we come to one of my least favorites: raspberry ketones. They are thought to help burn fat. The literature is still out; however, my opinion has already been made. Luckily, these are not naturally occurring ketones in your body, so supposedly they pose less risk[2,5].

However, we all know that ketoacidosis is dangerous and life-threatening. It is the reason Atkins had to add some carbs to their regimen- you literally can’t live without them. And guess what causes ketoacidosis? You named it: ketones. Why any sane person would put them in their body is beyond me. Save your money. Don’t bother.


Protecting Your Health

Now comes the time for the more sobering message. Yes, diet pills can help boost your lifestyle change[4]. They are not an effective sole weight loss treatment, but any help we can get we will take. After you sort through the dangers of the fraudulent companies and bogus ingredients, you think you’re finally home free with your fat-melting, calorie-burning pill of goodness. But you’re not out of the woods yet. Some studies have shown that people who are drawn to using diet pills are at an increased risk for developing an eating disorder[1].

There is still the question of the chicken and the egg: does the tendency towards eating disorders cause them to be drawn toward diet pills or do diet pills cause users to have an unhealthy obsession with their eating? That question still remains unanswered. If you have truly committed to a healthy lifestyle and you’re just looking for something to give you a boost of confidence as you go through your journey, you should be ok. But don’t turn a blind eye if you start noticing negative changes in your thoughts and actions. You only get to have one body. Nothing is worth more than your health so protect it.

If you’ve decided you’re one of the healthy individuals who just wants an extra bonus for your new habits, then here is another tidbit of wisdom. When taking a caffeine supplement (or really any supplement for that matter), a great way you can protect yourself is by tracking your dosage and drinking plenty of water. As a general rule, you should drink an extra 8oz of water for every cup of caffeine you drink (or every 95mg of caffeine you take). This is in addition to the water you should already be drinking. No excuses.

It’s also a great idea to tell your doctor what you’re taking. Even if you think it’s safe, it’s good for your physician to have that kind of information on file in case you do end up having an allergic reaction or accidentally take too much and you need help. Never be embarrassed to tell your doctor what you’re doing to lose weight because they want you to be healthy, too. They are in your corner trying to keep you healthy, too.

[1] Celio, C. I., Luce, K. H., Bryson, S. W., Winzelberg, A. J., Cunning, D., Rockwell, R., Celio, A., Wilfey, D., & Barr Taylor, C. (2006). Use of diet pills and other dieting aids in a college population with high weight and shape concerns. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 39(6), 492-497. doi:10.1002/eat.20254
[2] Duke University. (2016). Diet Research. http://people.duke.edu/~mtr4/diet-research
[3] Klampe, M. (2012). Study: Most weight loss supplements are not effective. Retrieved from http://www.oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2012/mar/study
[4] Mayo Clinic. (2016). Over-the-counter weight-loss pills. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/helath-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/weight-loss/art-20046409
[5] National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Dietary supplements for weight loss: Fact sheet for health professionals. Retrieved from https://www.ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/weightloss-healthprofessional

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