Skinny on slimming pills

The wonder drug that allows you to mindlessly eat, drink and live the way you want without packing in unwanted weight is a modern myth. Sadly, there are still no shortcuts to losing weight.

health and fitness Updated: Aug 04, 2012 22:19 IST

French perfumer Robertet launched the world’s first ‘weight-loss’ fragrance Prends–moi in the UK on Thursday and by the end of the day, it had a waiting list of over 6,000. Its manufacturers claim extensive ‘aromatherapeutic and ‘neurocosmetic’ research has gone into developing the product to help people “slim with pleasure” by releasing B-endorphins in the skin to trigger a sensation of well being and contentment, which would reduce the need to overeat.

It sounds suspiciously far-fetched — “the sales pitch is pure poppycock,” is how a neurologist chose to put it — yet the queue of people waiting to give away good money (Rs. 2,616, £29.99, US$47) pretty much sums up the desperation of tens of millions to lose weight without effort.

Everyone dreams of a wonder pill that allows you to eat, drink and live the life you want without packing in unwanted weight. Very few meet the scientific scrutiny needed to get regulatory approval, most are just sold as traditional or alternative supplements that have less stringent standards, yet people continue to pop them with the Olympian hope that it will make them skinny without their having to sacrifice time and energy sticking to a nutritionally sound diet and exercise plan.

Prescriptive cure Last month, the US Food and Drug Administration approved two new prescription weight-loss medicines — lorcaserin hydrochloride (US brandname Belviq) and phentermine and topiramate extended-release (brandname Qsymia) — for chronic weight control. The approval is specifically for use in adults with a BMI above 30 (considered obese), and 27 (considered overweight) or above if they also have at least one weight-related medical condition, such as high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes or high cholesterol. The medicines can’t be taken during pregnancy because they may harm the foetus.

The fineprint that most people miss is that these medicines work only when taken in addition to a reduced-calorie diet and exercise, which means you still need food-control and increased activity to get a leaner silhouette.

Then there are the potential side effects. Apart from disturbances in attention and memory, Belviq can cause the life-threatening serotonin syndrome, particularly when taken with drugs used to treat depression and migraine that increase serotonin levels or activate serotonin receptors. Hard drugs, such as ecstasy and LSD, also cause serotonin syndrome, which causes symptoms agitation, diarrhoea, palpitation, fever, nausea, vomiting, loss of coordination, hallucinations. Qsymia, too, causes tingling of the hands and feet, dizziness, insomnia, constipation, a change in taste sensation and dry mouth. The FDA doesn’t recommend it for people with glaucoma and hyperthryoidism, or patients with recent heart disease or stroke.

Off-the-shelf disaster
Mumbai’s software engineer Dyson D’souza, 28, was an obese child who lost 20 kg through a disciplined diet and exercise in college, but quickly gained back 10 kg within a few years into his job, largely because of erratic eating.

In 2010, a desperate D’souza ordered a bottle of “fat-burning” pills online. Even though he had only one pill a day, as against one after every meal, D’souza worn out at the end of the day. “My body turned moderately warm and energetic. I would just be up, about, and awake, at least an hour after my usual bedtime,” he recollects.

Since he wanted the pills only as an aid in losing weight, she stopped using them quickly “I never thought of them as a quick-fix solution. But yes, I stopped taking them much earlier than I thought I would,” says D’souza, who now has a dietitian manage his diet. He also walks and gyms for a few hours a week.

Unlike D’souza, Anil Sharma, 54, learned of the risks the hard way when he turned to weight-loss medicines to shed the troublesome 5 kg he wanted off to reach his target weight of 79 kg.

“It’s not that I was desperate. I just happened to see Ayurvedic medicine that promised a weight-loss of 5 kg within a month without side effects, and I thought, what do I have to lose? So I went for it,” says the stockbroker, who lives in DLF Gurgaon.

He brought a bottle of smartly-packaged ayurvedic powder for R1,200 and was happy to lose 2 kg in the first month. And then the trouble began. He suddenly found his appetite had disappeared. “There were days I could not eat anything at all for two whole days. Within three months, my skin had darkened and I developed dark circles. Then I developed acute diarrhoea, I stopped taking the medicine,” says Sharma.

He had lost 5 kg in three months, but his problems continued even after he stopped. “I kept losing weight, losing 11 kg in six months. I felt so weak that I had to go to a doctor at Max Superspeciality, Saket, who prescribed a battery of tests including a sonography and endoscopy,” says Sharma. A battery of tests and Rs. 50,000 on, Sharma was told his food-pipe lining had corroded and he had developed very high acidity. He’s now off weight-loss drugs for life. “In six months, I’m back to 83 kg but don’t care. If I can’t manage my weight with diet and exercise, I just live with it,” he says.

Permanent fix

“There are no short-cuts to weight loss. Losing weight more rapidly means losing water weight or muscle tissue, rather than fat. Healthy weight loss occurs slowly and steadily, so you should target losing 2 kg a month, which means you need to burn 500 to 1,000 calories a day through a low-calorie diet and regular exercise,” says says nutritionist Ishi Kholsa, director, WholeFoods. And you need to be realistic. “No matter how prepared you may be, you’ll occasionally overeat or eat foods that you should avoid. Rather than let a setback derail your efforts, accept that it happened and get back on track. Don’t expect to be perfect and never give up,” says Khosla.

First Published: Aug 04, 2012 22:08 IST