The Dangers of Weight Loss Supplements

March 10, 2011

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supplementsPerhaps you’ve seen ads on the Internet or pills at a convenience store that promise to cut your appetite, speed your metabolism, or melt away extra pounds, and wondered if they could help aid your weight loss efforts.

Their promises sound tempting, but the FDA recently cracked down on a number of such supplements, issuing a warning that they may be ineffective at best and downright dangerous to your health at worst.

In particular, the agency is targeting weight loss products containing sibutramine, an appetite suppressant formerly available by prescription under the brand name Meridia. The FDA withdrew this medication from the market in 2010 after studies linked it to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Despite the danger, the agency said it has discovered “dozens of products” for sale as dietary supplements – sometimes listing the ingredient and sometimes not – marketed under various brand names.

It’s also important to note that even when it was still legally available by prescription, sibutramine wasn’t especially effective as an appetite suppressant or weight loss aid. There are other prescription medications still on the market that are safer and more effective.

Unlike prescription drugs, which are regulated by the FDA, supplements are not. Because of this, it’s impossible to know exactly what ingredients a supplement contains or at what strength. Like sibutramine, the ingredients can react in dangerous way with other prescription or over-the-counter medications, and this danger may or may not be clearly listed on the product. Add to that the fact that many are manufactured or sold from overseas locations, and it’s easy to see that taking them is literally like playing a game of Russian roulette.

For example, not so long ago a patient whom I had been seeing came into my office complaining he didn’t feel well. After discovering his blood pressure was extremely high – easily within the range that could have caused him to have a stroke or heart attack – he  reluctantly admitted he had taken an herbal supplement that promised to aid in weight loss. It took nearly 24 hours for us to get his blood pressure back under control. Luckily, he didn’t suffer any ill effects, but he easily could have. It was a very scary 24 hours.

My advice? If you are tempted to try a weight loss supplement, take information about the product with you to your doctor before you buy. Together you can look into the product’s claims, see if the active ingredients may interact with any other medications you are currently taking, weigh it against any prescription medication alternatives, and make an informed decision. But resist the urge to play doctor yourself. If not, you could literally be taking your own life into your hands.

Dr. Michael Kaplan

Founder and Chief Medical Officer

The Center for Medical Weight Loss

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Comments (8)

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