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Do Diet Pills Work? A Doctor Examines the Claims

by David McCormick, M.D., and Lisa McCormick

2008-03-diet-pills-1.jpg"Rapid weight loss—guaranteed!"

"Burn fat while you sleep!"

"Speed up your metabolism—naturally."

The Federal Trade Commission says promises like these convince American dieters to spend over $30 billion a year on products and programs that supposedly help you lose weight. But do they really work? Are they safe? Or are they just a ruse to get your money?

These are questions patients often ask me. Unfortunately, the FTC and other government and medical agencies say all you’ll lose with “quick-and-easy” weight-loss products is your money.


WHAT'S IN DIET PILLS2008-03-diet-pills-3.jpg
And many of these so-called miracle products have potentially harmful ingredients, such as caffeine (which may be listed under a variety of names, including guarana, kola nut, maté and paullinia cupana). At high doses, these stimulants can cause high blood pressure, rapid heart rates and possibly even worse effects.


HOW DIES PILLS ARE REGULATED
It’s important to remember that weight-loss supplements aren’t regulated or labeled like medications. They may not contain what their labels claim, and you may not know about possible serious side effects or interactions with medicines or other dietary supplements.


PROVEN HELP FOR LOSING WEIGHT

A good bet for weight-loss success is to talk to your doctor. You might be a candidate for a prescription weight-loss drug. These medications, unlike herbs and so-called miracle diets supplements, have FDA approval to assist in weight loss. They’ve undergone scientific testing. And they can only be given by a doctor, who will monitor your results and watch for any side effects.

A doctor can also determine if there’s a medical reason for your weight problem—like hypothyroidism, a condition in which your thyroid gland, which helps control metabolism, is sluggish. A simple blood test will reveal this problem. And the usual treatment is easy—one pill a day that replaces the thyroid hormone you’re missing.


WEIGHT-LOSS SUCCESS STORIES

Consider the success two of my patients achieved by eating less and exercising more:

"Raoul" is a 26-year-old who weighed more than 400 pounds. I first saw him in 2002. We discussed the use of prescription weight-loss medicines like Meridia and Xenical. He wanted to try diet and exercise. He restricted himself to 1,500 calories a day and started walking 15 minutes a day. He worked up to 20 minutes and then started newsletter-graphicjogging. Raoul now runs two miles daily and has started lifting weights every other day. “It was hard the first three weeks,” he told me. “But after it became a habit it was much easier to continue.” In the past three years, Raoul has dropped 185 pounds. He now weighs 233 pounds and continues to follow a sensible diet and exercise regularly.

"Jimmy " is a 64-year-old who weighed more than 300 pounds. He came to see me in 2003 to discuss various weight-loss options. On his own, he restricted his diet to 1,000 calories a day. (That’s actually lower than I would recommend.) He also started running. “At first I could only go about 100 feet,” he said. “I alternated between running and walking and gradually increased my distance.” In the past 18 months, he has lost 97 pounds. He now runs eight miles, four days a week. Last year, he finished the 26.2-mile Walt Disney World Marathon in five-and-a-half hours.


TIPS TO LOSE WEIGHT AND KEEP IT OFF

Besides taking unproven diet pills, here are some other "don'ts" I advise my patients about who want to lose weight safely and keep it off.

Don't:

  • skip breakfast. That’s truly the most important meal of the day. A healthy, well-balanced breakfast will keep you full and stop you from snacking too much.
  • eat just one big meal a day. If you skip meals, you can put your body into starvation mode, making it store energy in the form of fat. It’s healthier to eat five or six small meals through the day.
  • not keep track of what you eat. When my patients do keep track, they’re surprised to see they often consume as many as 1,500 calories in one meal. One of the most interesting culprits is the salad bar. Lettuce is low in calories, but lettuce topped with cheese, croutons and salad dressing is calorie-rich. Two tablespoons of ranch dressing, for example, has about 140 calories.
  • forget about exercise. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Ride your bike. Go for a walk. The importance of exercise also increases as you age. It keeps your bones strong and slows the onset of osteoporosis. Your metabolism also slows as your age, meaning you have to exercise more and eat less to maintain your current weight.
  • try to lose several pounds in a week. If you do, much of that will be water weight, and it will come right back. Your goal should be to drop 1 pound a week. According to the Mayo Clinic, cutting 250 calories from your daily diet will help you lose about half a pound a week.
  • neglect variety. Your diet should include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, meats and beans. The key is to eat in moderation.

To change your lifestyle, work with your doctor to develop a long-term weight-loss and exercise plan. You won’t see results overnight, but if you stick to the plan, you should lose weight safely and permanently. That’s one claim I can guarantee.


About the Authors: David McCormick, M.D., is a board-certified family doctor with the Gashland Clinic in Kansas City, Mo., and a member of the National Council Against Health Fraud. Lisa McCormick, his wife, is an award-winning investigative reporter and former television producer whose specialties are consumer fraud and economic crime.

Last updated and/or approved: April 2010. Original article appeared in spring 2006 former print magazine. Bios current as of spring 2006. This article is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.


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Comments (9)add comment
0
pills and will power
written by antjon , April 13, 2011

pills do work, the people who need fat burner pills are those who have no will power,
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Diet Drops
written by HGC Drops , April 05, 2011

@ Mark Salinas:

I think you are getting the point of these diet supplements offer, but perhaps, I get your point, your point is that dont just be too dependent on them, right?

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Weight loss pills, the new snake oil...
written by Cody , March 19, 2011

Weight loss pills and fads are just the new snake oil.

Diet and exercise are still the best ways to take off the weight, and keep it off.

But with those who have a condition that doesn't allow the body to process food properly. Diet and exercise are not always enough. Medication might be your best shot.

Thanks for the information

-Cody

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HCG
written by Weight Loss , March 12, 2011

Hi! Weight loss pills actually do work if you strictly follow their protocol, and of course, doing exercise and self discipline will be the factors to achieve your goal.
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...
written by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. , July 28, 2008

Blake, that is the only way to maintain a healthy weight. Everyone is looking for the miracle pill that is non-existent.
Thanks for the comments.

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Hype
written by Blake Hagen , July 28, 2008

It is crazy how people buy into the hype of "miracle" products. I am a firm believer in exercise and eating healthy!
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Only Way to Lose Weight
written by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. , July 17, 2008

I agree. The only way to lose weight is the old-fashioned way, along with a mindset to keep it off.
Thanks

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AMEN TO THAT
written by MizFit , July 17, 2008

I simply echo Mark.

never the way to go..

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NO PILLS
written by Mark Salinas , July 07, 2008

No, no, no pills! Exercise, smart eating, keep busy. Good post
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