America has long been obsessed with weight loss. New fad diets continue to crop up, food and fitness influencers are popular across social media, and diet and exercise apps are on the rise. It’s no wonder the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports more people are on diets now than were a decade ago, and that a 2021 Gallup poll shows that 4 out of 10 Americans consider themselves to be overweight.
While healthy eating and exercise are, of course, paramount to longevity and quality of life, experts say too many people think of weight loss pills as a shortcut for shedding extra pounds instead of as a sometimes-vital tool for the individuals they’ve been approved for. Barbara Olendzki, RD, associate professor at UMass Chan Medical School, says “there are many dangers” associated with weight loss pills and she doesn’t recommend taking them “without a doctor’s prescription and oversight.”
Do weight loss pills work?
For the right person, weight loss pills can be a helpful tool in weight management. Rutuja Desai Patel, DO, obesity medicine specialist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, acknowledges “clinical trials do show that they are effective for weight loss and weight maintenance,” but notes that weight loss pills are usually only suggested for people with a body mass index over 30 and after other weight loss treatments such as diet and exercise have been implemented into one’s lifestyle first.
Are any weight loss pills FDA approved?
“Over-the-counter supplements for weight loss should be viewed with caution because at best, they don’t work, and at worst, they may cause harm,” warns Patel.
While there’s no shortage in the number of weight loss pills on the market, only six weight-loss drugs are currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for long-term use. These include:
All but one of these drugs work to either curb hunger or to help one feel full after meals. Orlistat is the only drug on the list that affects the way one’s body absorbs fat.
Patel explains such FDA-approved drugs are intended to be used by people struggling with significant excess weight, and individuals with concerning “comorbidities associated with obesity,” and not by anyone casually looking to drop a few pounds.
How much weight can you lose with weight loss pills?
For individuals that have been recommended for a prescription, Mayo Clinic notes that one can lose between “3% and 12%” of their total body weight through the drugs and says that for such people, the “combination of weight-loss medicine and lifestyle changes leads to greater weight loss than do lifestyle changes alone.”
For everyone else, a healthy diet and exercise is usually all that is recommended. “We do need to pay much more attention to preventing obesity early in life and onwards through healthy diets and regular physical activity, rather than waiting to respond to developed obesity and its complications,” cautions Walter Willett, MD, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
Are weight loss pills safe?
That’s especially true when considering some of the risks associated with weight-loss drugs. “(Weight-loss) medications are recommended when the benefit of taking them to reduce weight outweighs the risk of side effects or other consequences of these medications,” says Patel.
Such risks range from common side effects such as constipation, nausea, difficulty sleeping, or diarrhea, to more severe symptoms like high blood pressure and heart or kidney problems. Willett also warns that for some weight-loss drugs, “we don’t know about the long-term effects.” Indeed, Harvard Medical School notes that a few once popular weight-loss medications have since been taken off the market after links to heart valve damage or increased risk of heart attack or stroke were discovered.
“These medicines are best used with a comprehensive dietary and lifestyle program that can improve outcomes, and when there is a clinician reviewing developing side effects to make adjustments to reduce risk,” says Patel.
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