How Safe Are Diet Pills, Really?

Most are too good to be true.

On July 17, 2015, Mary Antoinette “Maan” Acedo, 19, from Zamboanga del Norte died days after she was brought to the Zamboanga del Norte Medical Center, where she suffered stomach aches, diarrhea, and vomiting. It was also the day before the coronation night of the Miss Dapitan beauty contest for the city’s Kinabayo Festival.

Maan’s mom said that Maan had been taking Garcinia Cambogia, the slimming pills she bought online to prepare for the pageant. Based on laboratory results, it was confirmed that Maan had taken too many of them; she took four pills a day, which was the recommended dose for an obese person when she herself wasn’t obese and only weighed 40 kilograms.

The issue on the safety of diet pills has once again arisen from this incident. Should no one take it? According to Arefa Cassoobhoy, the medical editor of WebMD, they’re not for everyone. “Doctors usually prescribe them only if your BMI is 30 or higher, or if it’s at least 27 and you have a condition that may be related to your weight, like type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure.” That said, if your BMI is lower than those values, if you're not obese, you shouldn’t take those pills. If you want to lose weight, Arefa advises “eating less and moving more,” since those are “the basics of weight loss that lasts.”

Taking diet pills is risky when it’s not prescribed (given that you’re honest with your doctor about your medical history and allergies) or you take more than the dosage prescribed to you. What makes them potentially deadly, exactly?

Different diet pills work differently, depending on what they contain. Some are appetite suppressants like Meridia and Tenuate. They affect the hypothalamus, that part of your brain that’s in charge of regulating your appetite. Appetite suppressants block your bodys uptake of serotonin and norepinephrine, so you feel satisfied like you had a big meal even if you didn’t. This makes you eat less so you lose weight. The downside to the suppressants is that they raise blood pressure and heart rate since your nervous system is stimulated, making heart attacks more probable.

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Others are prescription fat blockers like Xenical. They inhibit lipase, an enzyme that breaks down fat when it gets to your intestines. By doing this, a percentage of fat you consumed would be removed from your body when you take a dump instead of absorbed by your body. But as the fat blocker does its job, you can suffer from cramping, gas, and diarrhea. Not to mention your body doesn’t absorb vitamins and nutrients as much.

Meridia and Xenical are some of the diet pills that help people shed some pounds—from five to 22 pounds, which is around 10 percent of their weight. But effective pills like these are only meant to be taken for not more than six months, since the body develops a tolerance to them and the person no longer loses weight beyond the prescribed period. If her lifestyle is unhealthy—she eats junk and she doesn’t exercise—she’ll gain the pounds again.

Back to Maan Acedo. She overdosed on slimming pills and bought them online, without a doctor’s prescription it seems.

The current fact is that a number of weight-loss pills advertised online (or just about anywhere outside the doctor’s office) are too good to be true. Unfortunately for Maan, Garcinia Cambogia is one of those.

Garcinia cambogia is a tamarind with an active hydroxycitric acid or HCA found in its rind. It blocks the enzyme citrate lyase, which the body uses to produce fat. It’s said to make it easier for one’s body to use glucose, the sugar the cells need for energy—that’s why people with diabetes pick garcinia cambogia. But when this is taken with diabetes medicine, one’s blood sugar “could get dangerously low.”

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Although garcinia cambogia is a tropical fruit and a popular weight-loss supplement, the FDA warned people to stop using any product with it since some people who took them got “serious liver problems.” Some studies say it’s safe, while others don’t. With mixed reviews, no one should be taking it without prescription since it may interact badly with asthma and allergy medicines, diabetes medicines, prescriptions for psychiatric conditions, among others.

If you want to take diet pills, please consult your doctor—only a doctor—and follow the prescribed dosage. You’ll give yourself not just an easier time, but also just more time to be alive.

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