The Truth About Diet Pills

Can popping a pill be a shortcut to weight loss? If so, how do you know what’s safe to swallow?

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Dieting has become a national obsession and a multibillion-dollar industry. In fact, almost a quarter of all Americans say they are currently on a diet. Given that more than half of us are overweight, eating well and exercising are great ways to get healthy, but there's one weight loss strategy that can do more harm than good - diet pills.

There are more than a dozen prescription medications and hundreds of over-the-counter drugs and herbal supplements for weight loss. They work in several ways: by suppressing your appetite, increasing your metabolism or keeping your body from absorbing the fat you eat. Here's your guide to some popular choices and what you need to know to play it safe.

Herbal Supplements

Bitter orange has been used for many years in other parts of the world. Much like the naturally released chemical synephrine, it increases your energy and reduces your appetite. The release of synephrine is triggered when you need to run from real danger, but it's not the kind of chemical you want free floating in your system where it can increase blood pressure high enough to cause a stroke.

Hoodia can be found in liquid, pill, and even lollipop forms. Originally used by African leaders when they were embarking on a long journey to hunt or wage war, the plant-derived substance increases the amount of energy in the brain, which tells your body you have enough fuel and don't need to eat anymore. The drug has become so popular in the United States that more Hoodia has been sold here in the last year than has ever been made in African countries.

Buyer Beware

You may think that anything you find in a pharmacy is safe and effective. But that's far from the truth. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate many over-the-counter products, including herbal supplements. That means you have no idea how much of the active ingredient is actually in the product, whether it will work, and most importantly, if it contains harmful substances. A recent FDA investigation found that nearly 70 kinds of diet pills were actually spiked with dangerous drugs.

Prescription Medications

These medications are regulated by the FDA, but physicians are still cautious in prescribing them. They're only given to people who have a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30 or a BMI of 27 in conjunction with other health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. That's because these drugs, which tamper with the very complicated system that drives us to eat, can be risky to use.

Buyer beware : Taking too much of the medication or not following your doctors instructions exactly can lead to an increase in your heart rate, palpitations, and poor sleep, all of which could result in a greater risk of heart attack and stroke.

Over-the-Counter Drugs

Orlistat is the only product approved by the FDA that influences how fat is absorbed by our bodies. It coats the intestinal system stopping the enzymes that normally digest fat, enabling our bodies to absorb it. If you don't absorb fat, you can't absorb calories.

Buyer Beware : If you eat too much fat (a plate of cheese nachos, for instance), you will overload the system, and suffer bloating, gas and oily, loose, and frequent stools. To avoid this complication, you have to keep your total fat intake to 30% or less (which is actually how the medication does its job) and try taking psyllium husks or other high-fiber supplements to aid the digestive process. Orlistat also inhibits your body's ability to absorb important vitamins such as A, D and E, so it's important to take a multivitamin in conjunction with it.

Dr. Oz's Weight Loss in a Cup

Caffeine is a healthy way to jumpstart a diet. Two cups of black coffee (no cream, no sugar) a day will increase your metabolism. Check with your doctor before you put this into practice.