Over-the-Counter Diet Pills: Do They Work?

Photo by Sage RossCC-BY-SA

Most of us have seen the late-night infomercials advertising a miracle diet pill that promises amazing weight-loss results with little or no effort. Before you use an over-the-counter diet pill, educate yourself about the ingredients, the actual effectiveness of the product and consult with your doctor. Diet pills that are sold over-the-counter are not subject to the same testing standards as prescription weight-loss pills. Diet pills can be sold with little proof of actual weight-loss. The safety of the pills are monitored by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after the product is placed on the market. The FDA recalls or bans diet pills that are dangerous after consumers use the product and report serious side effects. 

One popular diet pill is called a “fat trapper.” Fat trappers are made from the ground shells of shellfish like crabs that contain chitosan. Chitosan allegedly binds to fats in the digestive system and prevents your stomach and intestines from digesting and absorbing the fat. There is some evidence that chitosan prevents fat absorption, but the effect is minimal. Moreover, chitosan can prevent your body from absorbing nutrients that are fat-soluble. Fat-soluble nutrients include the essential vitamins A, D, E and K. If you intend to take an over-the-counter fat-blocker, see your doctor first and limit your use to less than 3 months.
Over-the-counter diet pills advertised as “fat burners” usually contain stimulants derived from herbs and a combination of ingredients like hydroxycitric acid, which is an appetite suppressant. Stimulants found in these pills often include caffeine and ephedrine combined with aspirin. Fat-burners can work when combined with a healthy diet and exercise, but there can be some serious side-effects. Caffeine can increase your heart rate. Ephedra may elevate your blood pressure to dangerous levels. You can lose weight by supplementing your diet and exercise program with a fat-burner, but there are health risks. Always consult your doctor before using an over-the-counter fat-burner diet pill. 
Most over-the-counter diet pills are expensive, the results are minimal and the side-effects can be serious. There is no magic pill that will help you reduce your weight and burn fat. Healthy eating habits, a balanced diet that includes vegetables and fruits and regular exercise are the essential elements to a healthy weight. 
For more information about diet pills, see:
WebMD, The Truth About Weight-Loss Pills, by Alison Palkhivala, reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD, 2001

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