Diet pills still kill, weight loss experts discuss 'quick fix' dangers

Remember the prescription drug combination Fen-Phen? The quick fix pill that was supposed to cure obesity?

Fen-phen was a diet product that combined fenluramine with phentermine. Fen-phen may have disappeared from store shelves back in 1997, but it hasn't disappeared entirely. Neither has PPH and Fen-phen—and Fen-phen side effects that cause primary pulmonary hypertension (PPH). The adverse health issue launched a record number of PPH class action lawsuits.

Fen-phen as an herbal product (ephedra) is reported to be still available online and in some less than reputable health food stores. Any newfangled version of it escapes regulation from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has no jurisdiction over herbal remedies in the same way it does over pharmaceuticals.

Unlike a prescription medication, which requires FDA approval before it is allowed on the market, herbal remedies do not require such approval.

While the FDA maintains to this day that phentermine on its own is a safe and effective weight-loss agent, the particular combination of fenluramine and phentermine was found to promote PPH, a disease of the lung that can often take years to appear even after fen-phen use has stopped.

Despite the lawsuits, compromised health and even deaths, the quick fix mentality for weight loss never seems to end. There's growing evidence on the dangers of unregulated over-the-counter dietary supplements and aids in the form of pills and extracts being sold at many nutritional retailers today.

The New York Times sounded the alarm this past weekend citing the medical files of high school student Christopher Herrera of Katy, Texas. A green tea extract reportedly nearly killed Christopher and damaged his liver.

The Times chronicles Herrera's ordeal as the teen had reportedly walked into the emergency room at Texas Children’s Hospital one morning last year, his chest, face and eyes were bright yellow — “almost highlighter yellow,” said Dr. Shreena S. Patel, the pediatric resident who treated him, according to the Times.

Christopher suffered severe liver damage after using a concentrated green tea extract he bought at a nutrition store as a “fat burning” supplement. The damage was so extensive that he was put on the waiting list for a liver transplant.

“It was terrifying,” he said. “They kept telling me they had the best surgeons, and they were trying to comfort me. But they were saying that I needed a new liver and that my body could reject it.”

The Times reports that the current data suggests that Herrera is not an isolated case of supplement poisoning.

They report that dietary supplements "account for nearly 20 percent of drug-related liver injuries that turn up in hospitals, up from 7 percent a decade ago," according to an analysis by a national network of liver specialists.

Fortunately many patients recover once they stop taking the supplements and receive treatment, but a few require liver transplants or die because of liver failure.

The average customers, according to the Times, are middle-aged women and teens who turn to dietary supplements to burn fat or speed up weight loss efforts.

The Times reports that Americans spend an estimated $32 billion on dietary supplements every year, attracted by unproven claims that various pills and powders will help them lose weight, build muscle and fight off everything from colds to chronic illnesses. About half of Americans use dietary supplements, and most of them take more than one product at a time.

The F.D.A. estimates that 70 percent of dietary supplement companies are not following basic quality control standards that would help prevent adulteration of their products.

The Times notes that in 2008, the F.D.A. removed one “fat burning” product from shelves, OxyElite Pro, that was linked to one death and dozens of cases of hepatitis and liver injury in Hawaii and other states.

The new research, presented last month at a conference in Washington, was produced by the Drug-Induced Liver Injury Network, which was established by the National Institutes of Health to track patients who suffer liver damage from certain drugs and alternative medicines. It includes doctors at eight major hospitals throughout the country.

Adam Silberstein, Psy. D. of The Source Health and Wellness Treatment Center, which specializes in helping people who have an unhealthy relationship with smoking or food issues, walks the talk and was once over 300 pounds. He is now a normal weight for his frame and he did it without surgery or dietary aids.

He tells Monsters and Critics: "Acknowledging the absolute tragedy of loss of life and health, what strikes me is that an enhancement or fix is still viewed as an essential ingredient in weight loss. As I see it, there is no shortcut to or substitute for the serious commitment and effort required for weight reduction."

Dr. Silberstein's associate nutrionist at The Source, David A. Wiss, MS, RDN, CPT, says, "People will always gravitate towards the 'quick fix', which is essentially what most dietary supplements represent. Long-term sustainable weight reduction requires behavior change often stimulated by an internal shift. Most people are not ready to change their lifestyles but would much rather purchase a 'miracle' supplement. The 'quick fix' approach to weight loss has never worked, meanwhile the supplement industry continues to profit off the vulnerability of individuals who are dissatisfied with their bodies."

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