The real skinny on weight-loss supplements
By Martin Downs
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature
Claims about diet pills aren't always suspect. Some do help the body burn fat. But marketing tactics pill-makers use can be misleading, and experts insist that diet pills are rarely the best way to lose weight.
It's been said many times, many ways: Good eating habits and plenty of exercise are the best ways to get and stay slim. Nevertheless, the allure of taking pills and watching the fat melt away may be hard to resist, especially for people who are really struggling. "These type of products are just feeding into that desperation," says Sheah Rarback, dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Nothing is easy or effortless and guaranteed when it comes to our weight, unfortunately."
What's more, slimming down with pills may put some people in danger.
One of the most popular weight-loss supplements in the United States -- considered a "nutritional supplement" and not a drug by current FDA standards -- is Xenadrine, made by the New Jersey company Cytodyne Technologies.
The main ingredient in its original formula, Xenadrine RFA-1, is ephedrine, derived from the ephedra plant. Ephedrine increases metabolism, the process by which fat cells are broken down and converted to energy, and it suppresses appetite.
The effects of ephedrine are like those of amphetamines, also known as speed, and for some they can be deadly. Ephedrine can raise one's heart rate and blood pressure, so people with heart conditions and high blood pressure are warned against taking it. According to FDA records obtained by the watchdog group Public Citizen, ephedrine was linked to 32 heart attacks, 69 strokes, and altogether 81 deaths from 1993 to 2000. In June 2002, the group claimed that more than 100 ephedrine-related deaths had been reported to the FDA.
Xenadrine isn't the only weight-loss supplement that contains ephedrine. Other well known brands include Metabolife and Twinlab Ripped Fuel.
Xenadrine gained more notoriety in 1998, when an American woman slammed her car into another vehicle at 100 mph, killing two Canadian teens. She was tried on criminal charges, but in 1999 a British Columbia Supreme Court judge found her not guilty by reason of mental illness. She had been taking Xenadrine, which defense attorneys said made her psychotic.
The product's warning label applies not only to cardiovascular problems, but also to the mind-altering effects ephedrine can have. People who are being treated for psychiatric problems or who may be at risk for mental illness are warned not to take it.
Ephedrine has also been linked to the heatstroke death of 23-year-old Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler this February. A Florida medical examiner has said Bechler's use of a weight-loss supplement containing ephedra contributed to his death. Watchdog groups, medical associations, and the FDA are calling for stricter warning labels or an outright ban on supplements containing ephedrine.
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