Diet pills: too good to be true?

Diet pills: too good to be true?

Want to shift the baby weight and think you've discovered a shortcut? Wise up, says Helen Foster


Finally it’s time. You’ve stopped breastfeeding, you’ve got some energy back and managed to reclaim a piece of the day you can call your own. Time for the baby weight to go, right? But while you’re online busy ordering all the lettuce from the supermarket – and pondering a new gym membership while you’re at it – out of the corner of your eye you spot one of those flashing banner ads for a miracle weight-loss cure. It’s promising exactly what you need – a fast and painless way to shift half a stone – and, ooh look, it’s even got a doctor recommending it. Hey, what harm could it do? Well, that depends...

Diet pills - what's in them?

Sadly there are still no miracle diet pills out there. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t safe products from reputable suppliers that offer a legitimate helping hand – although, face it, they still need to be combined with a hefty dose of willpower to get results. But what’s in this stuff, and what do weight-loss supplements (WLS) actually promise? Most fall into one of four categories:

  1. Thermogenics – these boast ingredients such as green tea extracts, capsaicin and raspberry ketones, and claim to rev up metabolism and burn fat.
  2. Binders or blockers – all claim to limit the amount of fat or carbohydrate the body absorbs. They include chitosan, white kidney bean extract, and the drug orlistat.
  3. Cleansing supplements – these flush out the digestive system, and are often supplied in the form of teas.
  4. Appetite suppressants – we could be talking green mango or konjac fibre, which claim to swell in the stomach, leading to a feeling of fullness.

Ok, well, that’s what they say they do. ‘But within these four categories you will find extremely well-researched and legitimate products such as Alli, which is made from the drug orlistat, that categorically does what it says,’ says Dr David Haslam from the National Obesity Forum. ‘But then there are also the downright exploitative – like the patches containing shellfish extract that claim you absorb the active ingredient through your skin.’

Most WLS, however, fall between these two extremes, which is why they’re both enticing and confusing. The problem is, studies have proved that raspberry ketones and green tea can raise rates of metabolism, white kidney bean extract does block carbs, and konjac will swell in the stomach and that can reduce appetite.

‘But many of those studies have been conducted on specific levels of a specific form of an active ingredient,’ says David, ‘and there’s no guarantee that the product you’re using contains the right type of that ingredient, or the amount used in the trial to show an effect. So, unless the trial was expressly carried out on the product itself, the data does not prove that it will do anything at all.’

This is one reason why, while WLS may offer the promise of dropping a dress size by a week next Wednesday, many users find nothing much changes. According to one review from America’s Oregon State University, the maximum amount of weight it’s possible to lose using a natural diet pill is less than 4lb – and that’s while making all those healthy diet changes that most supplements also recommend.

Better than nothing?

Well, yes – but some WLS have rather, um, interesting side effects. For starters there are a few mums out there who – after trying one of the immensely popular detox teas – were surprised to find themselves pregnant. Recommended by heaps of celebrities, it's based on the laxative senna leaf. But as it turns out, if the bags are steeped for too long the tea can trigger diarrhoea – and if that happens too soon after taking the contraceptive pill, unsuspecting women can find themselves with a bumper surprise nine months down the line. Should have read the FAQs online, hey...

On top of this, a recent report from the University of Hertfordshire found that 28 per cent of WLS users had experienced side effects including increased heart rate, skin problems, mood changes, headaches and diarrhoea.

‘The problem is, ingredients that might help us lose weight can often also interfere with other bodily functions,’ says weight- loss surgeon Dr Sally Norton ( ‘For example, ingredients that boost your metabolism by raising the pulse rate can increase the risk of headaches, high blood pressure and even heart problems.’

And that's not the only potential risk. Using fat binders long-term can disrupt the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D and K; capsaicin-based pills have been linked to heartburn; and a high intake of stimulants such as green tea can, not surprisingly, cause insomnia.

Controlled substances

At least supplements sold on our high streets are controlled. But the internet is like the Wild West of retail – especially if a website is based outside the UK. This means that while the best bad result anyone can get when buying online is to waste their money on capsules of corn starch, the worst could be – well, let’s not beat around the bush here – fatal.

Diet pills sold online containing dinitrophenol (DNP) have killed at least four people in the UK in the last few years, and more than 60 worldwide. DNP is a pesticide, and not approved for human consumption. Yes, it raises metabolism, but it can also trigger uncontrollable overheating that can ultimately lead to organ failure. Online WLS containing banned ingredients have also been linked to liver failure and bowel damage, while the former Liberty X singer and mum of two Michelle Heaton thinks her past use of online diet pills containing ephedrine was responsible for her development of the heart condition arrhythmia.

Buying products online can also be financially damaging. Some companies offer an appealing free trial in return for a customer’s details. But people don’t realise they’re signing up to a contract – and if they don’t cancel within 14 days, the company has every right to take money from their credit card. When they try to cancel, customers discover they can’t find the company’s phone number, email or address. Plus, according to the experts at, signing up to these trial offers means your details are often sold on to other dodgy companies as part of a ‘sucker’ list – leading to people being hounded by other scammers.

Now we know all of this sounds like pretty scary stuff, particularly when all you fancy losing is a few daft pounds, but as Sally says, ‘Think about it for a minute. The cost of treating obesity-related disease is threatening to cripple the NHS. Do you not think, if there was something that safely and effectively helped people lose weight, that GPs would be offering it to the 60 per cent of people who are currently overweight?’ Mmm, good point.

Is it worth it?

There are products out there that can help. For starters, there’s enough clinical data to support the claim that konjac fibre can reduce appetite. ‘I don’t think it works that well in supplement form, but if you use products such as konjac noodles to replace pasta, noodles or rice in your diet, you can create a sense of fullness that will stop you overeating,’ says nutritionist Yinka Thomas from advice website Guru+Go.

After doing my own research (you can thank me later), I’d say the nicest konjac products are made by Slendier. But while they do fill you up, they won’t stop you reaching for the ‘I’m fed up and really tired’ biscuit barrel – which is where that willpower comes in.

There are also a couple of over-the-counter WLS with legitimate research behind them. Studies comparing a group of people on a diet designed to cut 500 calories a day with another dieting group who were also taking XLS-Medical Fat Binder found that the group taking the supplement lost an average of 2.4 kilos more in 12 weeks. Dr David Haslam suggests that while this is no miracle, the company is at least trying. ‘It was only a small trial, but at least they have legitimate data that they are willing to expose to scrutiny,’ he says.

And then there’s Alli, which really does block the absorption of fat in any food you consume. This gives more weight loss than dieting alone – but the bowel-related side effects it can trigger if you eat even a tiny bit more fat than you should aren’t pretty. In fact, it’s been suggested that perhaps you don’t wear white while taking it, in case of accidents.

Don’t know about you, but reading all that suddenly makes eating more sensibly and breaking a little sweat with the buggy sound a lot more appealing.


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