The Secrets to Avoiding Dangerous Weight-Loss Supplements

By Pieter Cohen, MD, Cambridge Health Alliance, Harvard Medical School

Posted on | By Pieter Cohen, MD

Buying a natural weight loss supplement in a local store provides a sense of security. The well-lit store and friendly clerk – not to mention the sales tax – suggests that these weight-loss pills have Uncle Sam’s blessing. We shouldn’t blame ourselves for thinking that if they were really dangerous someone would have already removed them from US stores. Unfortunately, this is a false sense of security as dangerous weight-loss supplements are found on store shelves throughout America.

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Instead of the herbal ingredients listed on the label, these dangerous supplements actually contain unlisted, banned drugs. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned that hundreds of supplements contain hidden illegal drugs. These drugs pose real health hazards. The most common pharmaceutical in weight-loss supplements – sibutramine – can cause heart attacks and strokes even when physicians carefully prescribed it for weight loss.  That’s why the FDA banned sibutramine in 2010. But the risks multiply when we unknowingly use weight-loss supplements illegally spiked with the same drug. The drug is no longer produced by a professional pharmaceutical company, but instead by criminals in illegal factories without any quality control whatsoever.  Not only is the quality poor, but the amount of drug in each pill is completely unpredictable. One supplement pill can contain six-times more sibutramine than in one prescription pill. The poor quality and unpredictable dosages increase the health risks of the hidden pharmaceuticals.

Unfortunately, banned drugs are only the tip of the iceberg. Even more alarming are entirely new chemical substances that have never been tested in humans. The manufacturer starts with a banned medication, tinkers with the chemical structure by breaking a bond or switching a molecule, and creates a new substance. This new molecule has never been tested in animals, much less humans. The side effects of these new drugs may be similar to those of the parent drug – heart attacks and strokes – or they might be entirely different life-threatening effects. While the supplement label lists only herbal ingredients, the supplement capsules actually contain a new chemical. The manufacturer hopes that the new chemical leads to weight loss while remaining under the regulatory radar screen. The manufacturer has done nothing to ensure safety; instead, they are performing their own experiments, and American consumers are the guinea pigs. 

Tragically, we don’t have to wait to know if these experiments are deadly. In Europe, dieters have already died from using weight-loss supplements with modified prescription drugs. 

Article written by Pieter Cohen, MD
Cambridge Health Alliance, Harvard Medical School