Thursday, February 28, 2002

Risky Business
Despite possible benefits, diet supplements have many risks
By Meredith Smith
Skiff Staff

Weight-loss supplements such as Metabolife, Hydroxycut and Dexatrim offer to help people lose weight faster but usually do not work, said Justin Leonard, a contributor to the MSN health Web site.

“People usually gain back all the weight they lost while they were using the supplements,” he said.

Daniella Munguia/SKIFF STAFF
Diet supplements are available over the counter at almost any pharmacy.

What consumers usually don’t hear is that diet pills may cause health problems. Some contain drugs that are reported by both the American Medical Association and the Food and Drug Administration to be dangerous if used improperly.

One such weight-loss supplement, Fen-Phen, was taken off the market in the mid-1990s because people who used it were having strokes, heart attacks and even dying, said Rebecca Voelker, in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Fen-Phen contained fenfluramine and phentermine, which is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, better known as an MAOI. These two drugs in combination kept the body from controlling the amount of serotonin, which is a hormone in blood plasma, Voelker said.

“Excess serotonin damages blood vessels and heart valves, which leads to heart attacks and strokes,” she said.

Melissa Osborn, a junior art history major, took Fen-Phen before it was pulled off the market. A doctor prescribed it for her, not knowing at the time that it was dangerous, she said.

“I didn’t have any problems with it, but after I quit taking it, it was taken off the market,” Osborn said. “I only took it for a short time though.” Other weight-loss supplements contain ephedrine, which helps to speed up the user’s metabolism and give them energy, according to the FDA, which has received many negative reports associated with ephedrine.

“A number of (reports) have described events that have resulted in death or other health problems such as seizures and strokes,” said Dr. E. Ratcliffe Anderson Jr. in a letter to the FDA.

Two of the diet pills containing ephedrine that are currently available over-the-counter are Metabolife 356 and Hydroxycut.

“I have used both Fen-Phen and Metabolife, but I quit using them because they made my heart race,” said Amber Swain, a sophomore fashion merchandising major.

“My doctor never told me they could be harmful, but back then the doctors didn’t know that,” she said.

Katherine Hewitt, a sophomore early childhood education major, said she has had friends who used Metabolife.

“(My friends) told me that they could only sleep about four hours a night, and then they were tired during the day,” she said.

Both of these products have Web sites that give potential customers detailed information. They provide testimony from current customers, endorsements from doctors and guarantees that the supplements are safe.

However, it is the warning labels for these products that paint a different picture.

The small print on the Metabolife 356 warning label reads, “Exceeding the recommended serving may cause serious adverse health effects including heart attack and stroke.”

Further down, it reads, “Individuals who consume caffeine with this product may experience serious adverse health effects.” Metabolife, however, does provide a health hotline where customers can speak with registered nurses.

Hydroxycut boasts that it is all-natural and many people think it is safer than other weight-loss supplements. It contains Ma Huang, which is nothing more than the herbal, unrefined form of ephedrine.

The Hydroxycut warning label says not to take more than 100 milligrams of ephedrine in a 24-hour period. However, each dosage of Hydroxycut contains 334 milligrams of Ma Huang.

“There is really no one to regulate these pills because they are considered nutritional supplements and not medication,” said Diane Hawley, a nursing professor.

The FDA does not examine nutritional supplements and does not approve them, so there is no research or findings available to the public about the dangers of these supplements, Hawley said.

According to the Texas Department of Health, in 1994, Texas was the first state to investigate the links between ephedrine and the illnesses and deaths caused by them.Michelle Menecola at the Hydroxycut consumer hotline said, “Ephedrine is not bad for you if you don’t exceed the dosage, and even if you do exceed the dosage, it will just make you a little jittery.

“Taking ephedrine is like drinking a lot of sodas,” she said.

Leonard said the dangers of ephedrine have been overstated.

“One could argue that anyone who experiences or has experienced side effects with ephedrine shouldn’t be taking it,” he said.

He said in the case of ephedrine-related deaths, the user was probably taking too much and not following the directions.

On his Web site, Leonard said that the only way to lose weight permanently is through healthy eating and exercise.

“Although weight-loss drugs containing ephedrine help to speed up the person’s metabolism, their metabolism returns to its normal rate when they stop taking the drug,” he said.

Leonard said people should see their doctors before taking weight-loss supplements or beginning a diet.

“The doctor can also determine what weight-loss program will be effective for you,” said Leonard.

Meredith Smith


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