Maybe you remember this television commercial for the diet pill, alli. A blonde woman sits in front of her computer. Viewers can see her conversation about alli, a Food and Drug Administration approved, over-the-counter weight loss product, in an instant message window. Different people answer her questions and inform her of their satisfaction with the product. Her final comment, “but I still don’t understand how it works,” may explain many people’s feelings on dietary products.

How do diet pills work? Do they work? And are they safe?

Do they work?
According to the FDA, approved prescription dietary products may help obese people lose weight. Most approved prescription drugs work as appetite suppressants, except for Xenical (orlistat). Xenical, approved by the FDA in 1999, is the first in a line of drugs set to prevent obesity by decreasing fat absorption. To receive a prescription, a patient must fall into a certain category of body mass index, or must be under special circumstances such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

John VanDeVoort, director of pharmacy at Sacred Heart Hospital, 900 W. Clairemont Ave., said Xenical contains the same chemical ingredient found in the over-the-counter product, alli. The only difference is the dosage, as Xenical tablets have 120 milligrams. Alli tablets are half strength, with 60 milligrams. VanDeVoort said he believes that diet pills can be beneficiary.

“An individual will need to ultimately change his or her diet and activity levels to sustain weight loss,” he said. “Clinical studies show that patients lose weight faster when they take Xenical or alli, following a low fat diet versus dietary changes alone.”

Side effects
The two common diet pills VanDeVoort mentioned, Xenical and alli, can cause bloating, gas, stomach discomfort and diarrhea, he said. However, these symptoms depend upon diet. The more fat taken in, the greater the side effects. A low-fat diet, which is consistent with losing weight, would result in less of the side effects, VanDeVoort said.

“(It) depends on how much fat is taken in,” he said.

VanDeVoort also said the pills are generally considered to be safe.

“(They’re) the only diet aid that’s prescribed or recommended.”

Problems
Some issues in the past include amphetamines, which could be prescribed, or found over the counter, VanDeVoort said. In the late 1960s and 70s, amphetamines were used as diet pills, but were highly addictive.

A popular drug on the market that fell into this category was fen-phen. This product was shown to cause heart problems, such as heart attacks, and actually faced class action lawsuits, he said.

Other diet products from the past include stimulants such as Ephedra and caffeine, but were also pulled off the market because of concerns, VanDeVoort said.

Other problems concern unapproved diet pills. According to the FDA, it does not approve many diet supplements on the market. The producers of these products claim their products are herbal remedies, or are natural, but are untested. The FDA advises that before using diet supplements, patients visit their doctors, because some ingredients could cause health problems.

Alternative choices
It isn’t uncommon to see diet pill commercials for products which promise weightloss. Freshman Kirsten Kuehni said she believes these advertisements are common today, because they are money makers.

“I think a lot of companies jump on the bandwagon because people use them,” she said.

The reason diet pills are so popular, is because the process seems simple, said Susan Miller, clinical dietitian at Sacred Heart Hospital.

“It sounds easier to take a pill,” she said, in regard to conventional weightloss methods. Miller added people believe that if they take a diet pill, their weight will melt away overnight. But that isn’t the case.

“The biggest thing is that losing weight is what people want,” she said, “it will take work on our part.”

Kuehni said she has never used diet pills and does not know anyone who does. In previous health courses, she said she learned diet pills do not actually work. She said she agrees with Miller about why so many people use them in order to lose weight.

“I think a majority of people are too lazy to do work,” she said, adding a magic pill in a bottle would do the work instead.

One current diet pill Miller mentioned, alli, interferes with fat absorption and should be combined with a low-fat diet. However, Miller does not believe it makes a difference. People should follow a low fat diet anyway, she said. Miller also said she does not believe that pills, whether approved by the FDA or not, are good.

“Even FDA (approved) pills have been taken off the market,” she said.

Miller said she prefers different methods for weightloss than diet pills or herbal supplements, because some of them have had adverse effects, such as causing blood pressure to rise.

Miller said in order to lose weight, people should get physical activity, such as walking, although, “the best way to lose weight is eating less.”