Can diet pills kill you?
Diet pills are big business but are you taking them at your own peril? How badly do you want to lose weight? Is it worth your life?Simply Slim is the latest slimming aid to come under media scrutiny after investigations revealed serious side effects in some users.
At the heart of the controversy lies the potentially harmful elements that diet pills contain; in the case of Simply Slim, allegations were made that the supplement had potential negative effects on heart health as well as hypertension.
So, where do overweight consumers, desperate to shed those kilos, stand when it comes to selecting an over-the-counter weight-loss pill?
Simply Slim was withdrawn from the South African market by the Medicines Control Council (MCC) on 27 January of this year. According to Fidel Hadebe, spokesman for the Department of Health, the MCC based its decision to suspend the sale of the product after it was discovered that the product contained sibutramine, a schedule five substance. Medicines containing schedule five substances can only be sold on a prescription from a doctor, and need to be monitored.
“A number of complaints about the product were received by the MCC from the public. These included life-threatening adverse events such as psychological effects, kidney complications and cardiovascular events,” says Hadebe, who maintains that the risks associated with the use of Simply Slim by the public are greater than the benefits, and until this has been vetted by the MCC, sales have been prohibited.
Know where you stand
As a consumer, with a plethora of diet pills available over the counter (OTC) or via the click of a mouse, it’s important to understand the different types of diet pills – and what they contain.
Clinical dietician Claire Julsing explains that diet pills fall into two different categories: prescription medications and OTC slimming supplements. The second group is where most of the problems occur, Julsing points out: “Most of these diet pills are sold under the ‘supplement label’, but these are not regulated; do not undergo clinical trials; and are not expected to conform to the rules that apply to the pharmaceutical industry. As a result, ‘quick-fix’ products are marketed and sold to the public at large, which, in many cases, act as the trial run to see if any side effects occur. “Once the product is on the market, the consumer is the guinea pig to decipher the side effects and dangers associated with the particular product,” says Julsing.
According to nutrition and lifestyle specialist, Melanie Papaioannou: “Slimming supplements in general contain substances that decrease the appetite while increasing the metabolism.” This explains why Sarah experienced increased energy levels and weight loss – and stands to reason why people often ignore the side effects.
Lured by the promise of ‘natural’ ingredients, users often underestimate the risks of slimming pills. She claims that often the ingredients you should be wary of are not listed on the label. It is therefore important that consumers practice caution and consult with a nutritional expert before popping a pill to lose weight.
Those to be cautious of include:
Bitter orange: This substance replaced ephedrine as an ingredient in many weight-loss supplements (including Simply Slim), when ephedrine was taken off the market because of adverse effects on blood pressure and heart rhythm. However, some studies show that bitter orange may have the same effect on the body as ephedrine.
Chromium: Promotes fat loss and increases lean body mass, but only small studies have indicated the benefits of this mineral.
Senna: This product is believed to induce diarrhoea and can cause low levels of potassium. “Three deaths have been reported from the use of this product,” cautions Julsing.
Dehydorepianrosterone (DHEA): is supposed to promote weight loss, however, adds Julsing, supplementation can cause insulin resistance, a reduction in good cholesterol and increase the risk for heart disease.
Fat blockers (like orlistate): remove fats via the intestine. “The reality is that, in the process, this product also prevents the absorption of the important fat-soluable vitamins A,D, E and K, as well as the essential fatty acids vital for overall health,” says Papaioannou. She adds that fat blockers can also cause uncomfortable cramping, gas and diarrhoea.
Sibutramine and appetite suppressants: These, by nature, stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, which can raise blood pressure and heart rate, explains Papaioannou. “These products increase the risk of heart attack and cardiac arrest, especially among those who already suffer from high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat or heart disease.