For individuals with a strong desire to lose or maintain their weight, diet supplements may seem like a magical solution. The manufacturers of these products make extravagant promises about the properties of their drugs, but most of these claims are not backed up by clinical research. In fact, the drugs that promise to help you shed pounds or burn fat may hold hidden dangers to your health. In spite of the risks of using diet supplements, the demand for these products continues to rise, especially among individuals with eating disorders.
Up to 50% of those who meet the criteria for an eating disorder use over-the-counter diet pills, herbal supplements, or prescription drugs to lose weight, according to Eating Behaviors. Unless you’re using weight-loss drugs for legitimate medical reasons under a doctor’s supervision, you may be putting yourself in harm’s way by using these products.
What Exactly Are Diet Supplements?
A diet supplement is any product that you take orally that adds to the content of your ordinary diet. Not all supplements are intended to promote weight loss; a supplement may provide valuable nutritional replacement for consumers who don’t get enough of a specific ingredient in their daily meals. A dietary supplement may contain:
- Amino acids (Building blocks of protein)
- Botanical products/herbs
- Glandular extracts
- Organ products
People take diet supplements for many different reasons: to lose or gain weight, to restore lost nutrients, to build muscle tissue, to support physical functions like eyesight, to improve sleep, or to boost energy.
Just because a diet pill or supplement is sold in attractive packaging at a local drugstore or through an online vendor doesn’t mean that it’s safe. Many consumers aren’t aware that products marketed as diet supplements aren’t subject to regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unless the product contains a new ingredient. According to the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, it’s the manufacturer’s responsibility to prove that a supplement is safe, and not all manufacturers comply with this requirement. Many manufacturers have been accused of making false claims about their products, adding pharmaceutical ingredients to their supplements or producing their supplements under unsafe circumstances.
How Do Weight Loss Supplements Work?
If you’re searching for dietary supplements that will help you lose weight, you’ll have no shortage of choices. The companies that distribute these products claim that the ingredients in their supplements can help you achieve results like these:
- Curb your cravings for food (chickweed, bee pollen, fennel)
- Make you feel full before you’ve had too much to eat (guar gum, psyllium)
- Speed up your metabolism (caffeine, guarana, synephrine, B-complex vitamins)
- Slow down your body’s fat production (green tea, hydrocitric acid, flax seed)
- Keep your body from absorbing the fat in the foods you eat (chondritin)
Diet supplements are available in just about any form that you can take by mouth – from pills and capsules to powders, liquids, and teas. Some products are taken with a meal, while others are taken instead of a meal. Over-the-counter diet pills supposedly help you lose weight by stimulating your metabolism, your body’s system for utilizing energy. The primary ingredient in products like Dexatrim with Metabolic Support is caffeine, a central nervous stimulant that may help you burn fat through a process called thermogenesis. But the risks of taking these stimulants may outweigh the benefits.
Why Are Weight Loss Pills Dangerous?
Many diet supplements are harmless, and some may even be effective at creating a sense of fullness, burning fat, or boosting your metabolism. But some of the popular ingredients in weight loss products have been banned by the FDA because of harmful side effects like these:
- Increased heart rate
- High blood pressure
- Kidney problems
- Liver damage
- Rectal bleeding
Ephedra – Banned
Once widely sold as an ingredient in diet supplements, the Chinese herbal stimulant ephedra was banned in 2004 because of evidence that its use could increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke. In 2005, a lower court ruled that ephedra could be used in small doses. In 2006, a federal appeals court reinstated the FDA’s original ban, ruling that ephedra was too dangerous to be used as a supplement at any dose.
Hydroxycut – Recalled and Banned
Some weight loss products can cause severe damage to your kidneys, liver, and other vital organs. Hydroxycut products were banned and recalled in 2009 because of reports of serious adverse reactions, including hepatitis and jaundice. One person who took these fat-burning supplements died; another required a liver transplant.
Fen-Phen – Recalled
Fenfluramine, one of the two active ingredients in the off-label diet drug Fen-Phen, was recalled in the late 1990s after the drug was linked to cases of heart damage and lung disease. Phentermine, the other primary ingredient in Fen-Phen, is still prescribed in certain cases for weight loss, but should be used only with a doctor’s prescription.
Meridia – Withdrawn from the Market
Sibutramine, a prescription drug sold as Meridia, was withdrawn from the market in 2010 after a clinical study indicated that the drug could increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. According to the National Institutes of Health, sibutramine was originally prescribed as a long-term appetite suppressant and weight management solution. The manufacturer voluntarily stopped production after Meridia was associated with evidence of cardiovascular damage.
How Do You Know What You’re Taking?
One of the biggest risks of taking over-the-counter diet supplements is that you can’t always be certain about the ingredients that a product contains. Because the FDA does not test all weight loss products for safety, there’s no guarantee that each ingredient in every supplement is safe. The FDA maintains a list of tainted weight-loss products so consumers can be aware of ones they should stay away from. Because the manufacturers did not list these ingredients on their product labels, consumers would have no way of knowing that they were ingesting products like these:
- Sibutramine: a weight-loss drug withdrawn because of its association with an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke
- Rimonabant: an appetite suppressant not approved for use in the US
- Phenytoin: an anti-seizure drug
- Phenolphthalein: an experimental drug that may cause cancer
The FDA issued a warning to consumers not to purchase supplements in its list of tainted products; however, this agency can’t test every new product on the market. The best way to ensure your safety is to consult a healthcare professional before you take any weight loss supplement.
How Are Diet Pills Abused?
Someone with an eating disorder may not be concerned about the dangers of dietary supplements. They may be so preoccupied with losing weight that they don’t care about the risks to their health. In an obsessive drive to lose weight, an individual with anorexia or bulimia is likely to abuse diet supplements in the following ways:
- Taking more than the recommended dose of a dietary supplement
- Taking diet products that aren’t recommended for individuals who are at a normal weight or underweight
- Taking prescription weight loss medication without a doctor’s supervision
- Combining multiple weight loss stimulants
- Combining diet pills with laxatives or diuretics
- Combining diet supplements with illegal stimulants like meth or cocaine
Taking an excessive dose of a diet supplement or combining supplements can be extremely hazardous. An overdose of stimulant products could raise your blood pressure to dangerously high levels, putting you at risk of a heart attack or stroke. Taking fat-blocking supplements along with laxatives or diuretics could cause diarrhea, fluid loss, and an electrolyte imbalance. Abusing products that hold a risk for liver or kidney damage only increases the possibility of life-threatening organ failure.
Are There Any Safe Weight Loss Drugs?
The FDA recently approved the prescription medications Belviq (lorcarserin hydrochloride) and Qsymia (a combination of the previously approved drugs phentirmine and topiramate extended release) for weight control. Both drugs are approved for adults with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater. Adults with a chronic, weight-related health condition such as high cholesterol or hypertension and a BMI of 27 or above may also qualify.
Many of the diet supplements you see in your local stores are generally recognized as safe for human consumption. But just because these drugs can be purchased without a prescription doesn’t mean that you can use more than the recommended dosage safely, or combine them with other drugs without experiencing serious side effects. Because diet supplements are widely available at commercial outlets or online, people with eating disorders have easy access to these products and are likely to misuse them.
In some cases, a weight loss drug or diet supplement may be a useful part of an eating disorders rehab program. Binge eating disorder, for instance, can leave patients overweight or morbidly obese. But in many cases, these products are being abused by teens or adults who have no medical need to lose weight. In such cases, the use of a diet pill is dangerous, even life-threatening. The focus of an eating disorders rehabilitation program is on supporting each client individually in his or her recovery goals. Whether that means gaining or losing weight is up to the treatment team, which may include a doctor, therapist, counselor and nutritionist. Unless diet pills are recommended by a medical professional, they are generally not part of a healthy recovery plan for eating disorders.
If you are struggling with substance abuse and an eating disorder, contact Futures of Palm Beach for help today.