More Magical Fitness Nonsense: Part II


The first post of this series looked at a new weight loss pill being developed by General Nutrition Centers.  It’s something containing caffeine, black pepper and an ingredient in hot peppers.  Who knows?  Maybe this thing actually is weight-loss in a pill.  I doubt it though.  Most likely this is just the latest version of fitness snake oil–and there’s plenty more out there.

If you’re any sort of follower of popular culture then you may know of the TV show the Biggest Loser. If so, then you know of Jillian Michaels, one of the show’s trainers.  Michaels was sued in February by a fan of the show.  The woman claims she bought a fat loss supplement sold by Michaels–and guess what!!  It didn’t work.  The suit further claims the product contains a tasty item called citrus aurantium (aka bitter orange).  This substance contains amphetamine compounds which are similar to those found in ephedrine.  These compounds are stimulants and they act to restrict blood vessels and to increase blood pressure and heart rate.  This bitter orange stuff has been used to replace ephedra in many fat-loss products.  Ephedra was linked to the 2003 death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher David Bechler.

More news on this topic came out in January of this year when the Abbott Laboratories’ weight-loss drug sibutramine was cited by European offiicials as being potentially harmful to heart disease patients.  The F. D. A. added a warning to the drug, known as the products Reductil, Meridia and Sibutrex.  (Wow, take a look at the contraindications and side effects of this stuff!  Doesn’t look fun.) 

What other kooky chemicals are in the news?  The article F. D. A. Finds ‘Natural’ Diet Pills Laced With Drugs appeared in the New York Times Business section back in February of 2009.  The story discusses a product called StarCaps.  StarCaps were promoted by celebrities and touted as a “natural” weight loss product that used papaya as an active ingredient.  Seems perhaps the true active ingredient was something called bumetanide, a diuretic that can cause all sorts of ugly side effects.  The article further states:

“In a continuing investigation that has prompted consumer warnings and recalls by some distributors, the F.D.A. has determined that dozens of weight-loss supplements, most of them imported from China, contain hidden and potentially harmful drugs.”

These stories remind me of the Fen-phen episode of several years ago.  Fen-phen was a combination of two weight-loss drugs marketed and sold by Wyeth.  The drug combination was very popular and seemingly effective.  Problem was Fen-phen caused heart conditions such as valvular heart disease, severe hypertension and even death in some users.  The product is no longer available and as of 2005, there were about 50,000 liability cases still to be resolved with an estimated  total of $14 billion in liability.  Seems that we may be eager to repeat history.

So what is the big picture?  Americans want to lose weight and there’s big money in that concept.  We’re not too good at exercising and eating right though.  If weight loss can come in a pill then a lot of us are very likely to spend plenty of cash on the product–nevermind the idea of “too-good-to-be-true” plays prominently in the background.  Thanks to the supplement industry-friendly DSHEA act of 1994  these supplements live in a gray area between food and drugs, and they don’t undergo the same scrutiny.  (Quackwatch gives a good commentary.)  Therefore some supplements may be just as powerful and potentially dangerous to many users as any other prescription drug.  (In fact, the risks posed by these weight-loss formulas may be more dangerous than simply being overweight!)  As in the case of StarCaps, the ingredient label may not tell us everything that’s in a supplement.  These are murky waters for the consumer.

Should these products be banned outright?  I’m not sure.  Can these products be used safely?  Maybe.  Clearly for some people these products are dangerous and possibly deadly.  This stuff must be seen through the same lens as any other medication.  Don’t let a label like “all-natural” fool you (BTW, black widow venom is all-natural too) and don’t let a celebrity face make you a sucker.  A healthy lifestyle has yet to come in a pill and it never will.  Get up, go walk around, and eat something that grew in the ground.

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