Herbal diet pills: Fact or Fantasy?

Can slimming down really be as easy as popping a pill? Choice, Australia investigates the ingredients that are claimed to have fat-busting properties.

Presently, one in six women and one in five men in India is overweight. The weight-loss industry has become big business. Advertisements of weight-loss pills or diet pills can be pretty convincing, especially when supported by ‘scientific evidence’ and amazing ‘testimonials’, complete with before and after shots. But you will typically find that diet pills are designed to be used in conjunction with a calorie-controlled diet and exercise.

No proof of efficacy

There are many herbal weight-loss supplements available in the market which have either conflicting or insufficient evidence regarding their efficacy. They are generally known as ‘fat burners’ and work by boosting the body’s metabolism. When doctors prescribe these supplements, they monitor the patient’s condition closely.

While diet pills may seem tempting in the battle of the bulge, they are no substitutes for a balanced diet and exercise. Opting for a diet pill could mean that the only thing getting lighter is your wallet. In most cases, doctors discourage their use. They opine that such pills, at the most, only reduce the appetite of the person. But once the person is off the pill, the earlier appetite returns, in some cases even increases.

In India, the department of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy) regulates the commercial manufacturing of Ayurvedic medicines.

Serious side effects

Moreover, herbal diet pills can have severe side effects, if taken without consulting a doctor. Continued use of some pills increases the risks of psychiatric, gastrointestinal and cardiovascular symptoms. It also gives rise to grave health problems such as hypertension, stroke, and in extreme cases, seizures. Experts say pills that contain heavy metals to reduce appetite can cause serious complications.

These products tend to be a mix of herbs, vitamins and, often, stimulants such as caffeine, which can result in high blood pressure and heart palpitations. Ingredients may react with one another or with other medications. For instance, if a pill contains both bitter orange and panax ginseng watch out. These two ingredients are not recommended to be taken together due to an increased risk of fatal heart arrhythmias.

Harmful ingredients

You should look at the product’s ingredient list and avoid those having bitter orange, chitosan or chromium picolinate. Some common ingredients and their side effects are given below:

Bitter orange: As per claims it is supposed to increases metabolism and fat burning while decreasing appetite. Side effects include fainting, heart attack and stroke. You should avoid bitter orange if you have a sensitive heart condition or are taking other medications.

Chitosan: It is supposed to bind to dietary fat to stop absorption. Side effects include malabsorption of nutrients and loose, oily stools.

Chromium picolinate: It is supposed to enhance insulin sensitivity and fat burning and increase lean body mass. It may cause DNA damage in high doses.

Green tea extract: Claims say it reduces fat synthesis and absorption and increases metabolism. Deemed safe but there is some concern that green tea extracts may cause liver toxicity, especially if taken on an empty stomach.

Hydroxycitric acid (HCA): Claims are that it modifies metabolism, reduces fat synthesis and decreases appetite. No side effects known.

Capsicum annum: Claimed to increase metabolic rate and reduce appetite. May result in short term burning pain.

Banned drug

In November 2010, The Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) banned the widely used anti-obesity drugs containing sibutramine marketed in India under brand names such as Reductil, Meridia and Sibutrex. This ban came into force after studies indicated that sibutramine increases the risk of heart attack, stroke and death in patients who consume it to shed excess flab.

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