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Weight-loss Pills Can Have Unsafe Ingredients

Most of us eat too much during the winter holidays—even though we know that all those latkes, lefse, or gingerbread men can linger around our waistlines well into the new year. It's easy to see why advertisements abound for "easy weight loss" products. But is there such a thing?Perhaps it's no coin...

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Most of us eat too much during the winter holidays—even though we know that all those latkes, lefse, or gingerbread men can linger around our waistlines well into the new year. It's easy to see why advertisements abound for "easy weight loss" products. But is there such a thing?

Perhaps it's no coincidence that the FDA chose late December to issue a consumer warning about tainted weight-loss pills. Apparently, many of the so-called natural weight-loss remedies now on the market contain "undeclared active pharmaceutical ingredients" that pose health risks for consumers. Some ingredients, like rimonabant, are not FDA-approved for marketing in the United States, while others are approved for a very different purpose—phenytoin, used in "3X Slimming Power" and "Extrim Plus," is actually an anti-seizure medication. And phenolphthalein, found in at least eight brands of weight-loss pills, is a suspected carcinogen. Sibutramine, present in nearly every brand of pill on the FDA's list, is a powerful appetite suppressant that is approved only for prescription use (brand name Meridia) because it can cause serious increases in blood pressure and heart rate.

Many herbal supplements, like chitosan or guar gum, have proven unlikely to cause weight loss, and can cause unpleasant side effects like constipation, flatulence, and bloating. Green tea extract might boost metabolism and curb the appetite, but at the cost of similarly nasty side effects.

Though the shocking prevalence of obesity in America is a relatively recent trend, the hunger for an easy cure dates back at least a century:

"It is all a matter of food," declared a 1904 Chicago Tribune article titled "How to Get Fat or Thin."

The author explains the differences between carbohydrates ("fuel foods"), protein and fat, and offers this advice: "If anybody who finds himself or herself beginning to get too fat will simply give up potatoes and bread for a while, the tendency will promptly cease... As for meats (if lean), as well as eggs, they are muscle and blood makers, and could never contribute fat to the most corpulently inclined individual."

Hmm...sounds like the Atkins' diet has been around for a long time. (Sorry to report that it, too, comes with some unappetizing side effects.)

The best strategy, of course, is simply to know what your body needs and eat accordingly. And in case you needed a little extra motivation, consider that Tribune writer's closing argument: "How many old people do you know who are overfat?...The reason is that corpulent persons rarely reach old age; they die first."

Um...happy new year?
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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