The Mythology of the Diet Pill

According to the National Institutes of Health1 and the Journal of the American Medical Association2, 75% of men and 67% of women in the United States are overweight or obese. To add insult to injury, nearly a third of children in the US are also. No matter what the cause – a subject for another day – many people are looking for the ever elusive weight loss pill; one that allows you to lose weight without diet or exercise.

The pharmaceutical industry rose to meet the need with the introduction of several prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs now available; the most popular being Xenical (Alli®), Belviq® (Lorcaserin HCL), Contrave® (bupropion/naltrexone), Saxenda® (Liraglutide injection), Adipex® (Phentermine) and Qsymia® (Phentermine HCL/Topiramate. For all, a drastic diet change as well as exercise is required to be effective and for all, there are typically associated side-effects – from cramps and diarrhea to death.3

The food industry stepped-in with low-fat food, calorie controlled portion sizes and the addition of Olestra (Olean®), approved by the FDA as a replacement for fat that adds no fat, calories, or cholesterol to products. The theory was that it is not absorbed by the body (it just passes through) so would be a good replacement for fats and oils found in snacks and fast foods. In practice however, when Frito-Lay had to add the FDA warning to their Lay’s WOW potato chips that it “…may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools,” sales dramatically decreased. After all, “anal leakage” is not really something one should be thinking of when choosing a healthy snack.

With exponential growth over the past 20 years, the dietary supplement industry has become arguably the lead player in the with sales estimates of over $2 billion annually – for products that simply do not work.4

An early and memorable product was Leptoprin®, a dangerous combination of Aspirin, Caffeine and Ephedrine (ACE) that in advertising, posed the question “When is a diet pill worth $153 a bottle?” and then went on to explain that it was only for people that were seriously overweight. The generic version followed several years later under the name Leptopril® – “Not to be used as a casual diet-aid” and with the reduced price of over $60.

Today, we are inundated with similar false advertising and unfortunately, often by celebrities and celebrity doctors that we trust. Take raspberry ketones for example. One to 4 milligrams of ketones occur naturally in a kilogram of raspberries5. In season and on my shelf, fresh raspberries cost $2.50 per pint. That means that it would require 66 thousand pints of raspberries at a total cost of $165,000 to produce a single bottle of 120 capsules that I can purchase as a dietary supplement for $10.

But if they advertised “synthetic chemicals industrially manufactured that are similar to those found in raspberries,” would people buy it? If people knew that to date there have never been any human clinical studies showing it to be effective, would it make any difference? However, when the celebrity doctor endorsed it – touting it as a “miracle in a pill – people scrambled to buy it.

Lipozene®, boasts having sold over 25 million bottles or $625 million. Its sole ingredient, glucomannan, is $16 per kilogram so to manufacturer Lipozene, it most likely costs less than $3 per bottle. If it actually worked, the 800% mark-up (retail $25) for the 10 day bottle could be justified but then again, glucomannan has been clinically shown ineffective.6

Sensa® – just sprinkle the crystals on any food that you want and you will lose weight – sounded just too good to be true. Apparently, it was as they were fined over $26 million dollars before the declared bankruptcy and shutdown operatioons.7

Green Coffee Extract, Garcinia cambogia (hydroxycitric acid), forskohlin, Citrus aurantium, Rhodiola rosacea, white kidney bean extract, African mango, Hoodia gordonii, Guggul, Hyperzine A…are only a small portion of the endless list of ineffective supplements touted as miracle weight loss products that for the most part, have no clinical studies. It is interesting to note that many advertise “…together with a proper diet and exercise” when in fact if people followed the correct diet and exercised, there would be no weight loss industry.

Despite what is advertised, there is no dietary supplement that has been clinically shown in human studies to be effective for weight loss. Simply put, “there’s no magic bullet for losing weight.”8

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