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Diet, Caffeine Pills Pose Health Risk

May 5, 2003 | Daily Illini

Diet and caffeine pills might seem like the perfect solution for busy college students who want to shed a few pounds quickly, but according to experts, the pills are often mislabeled and could pose health risks.

Both prescription and over-the-counter drugs attract people who seek "quick fixes" to their weight problems, but neither offer permanent results, said Kelly Tappenden, a University professor of nutrition.

Because the government does not place regulations on the ingredients or use of many weight loss pills, the appetite suppressants and stimulants commonly labeled as weight loss supplements do not warn users about the potential health problems that could result from taking the drugs. Some weight loss pills cause depression, anxiety and heart problems, she said.

"Some may be effective in the short term, but if people don't exercise, then they'll gain weight again — unless you take them for the rest of your life," she said.

Herbal supplements for weight loss often include caffeine, ephedra or other nervous system stimulants that could cause illness, said Don Layman, a University professor of nutrition.

The stimulant Ephedra, the most commonly publicized and widely used weight loss supplement, has been linked with illness and death, Tappenden said.

People, however, continue to use it as a "quick fix" to weight loss, she said.

The federal government stopped regulating over-the-counter supplements in 1994 following the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, or DSHEA, Tappenden said. The act permits drugs labeled as supplements to be sold over-the-counter without government regulation, resulting in an abundance of non-prescription dietary supplements. She said Ephedra was initially sold as a weight loss supplement for the controversial weight loss drug Fen-Phen.

Richard Price, spokesperson for the Ephedra Education Council, said over 3 billion servings of Ephedra are consumed by Americans yearly, offering an effective solution to America's growing weight problem. He said quality regulations are already in effect, and that industry standards are enforced "vigorously."

For students like Melinda Trent, senior in LAS, a supplement called Xenadrine was the solution. Ephedra, the main ingredient in Xenadrine, works with caffeine to increase thermogenesis in the body, according to their Web site. Thermogenesis is the process of converting food into heat before it can be stored as fat.

"Honestly, I did notice a difference," Trent said. "I stopped when the stories came out. If it works, it's great. But if it kills you, it's not worth it."

Ephedra can have potentially dangerous side effects, such as cardiac abnormalities, reduction of hydration status and death, Tappenden said.

"It's very dangerous and easy to get carried away," Trent said. "I told people I was doing it, so I had that accountability."

Despite an increase in energy and weight loss, Trent said she stopped taking Xenadrine because she started exercising regularly and did not think it was worth the risk.

"Doctors will just tell you to go exercise," Trent said. "Everything's a quick fix and you try it."

The company that makes Xenadrine also offers Ephedra-free weight loss pills called Xenadrine-EFX.

There are still questions regarding any weight loss drugs' safety and long-term effectiveness, Layman said.

"If anyone had a good solution, we'd all be thin," he said.

Price said Ephedra is a powerful tool in fighting obesity, offering a better alternative to the serious health risks that accompany obesity. Over 50 scientific studies have concluded that there was no serious adverse health effect from Ephedra, according to Ephedra Education Council's Web site.

Slim Mints, which have recently appeared in campus gas stations, contain the slogan "Slim Mints — Lose Weight & Freshen Your Breath With One Mint" and add to the growing list of dietary supplements available to students.

"There are certainly a lot of companies that want to find the magic bullet," Layman said. "I don't think there will ever be a solution where you can eat as much as you want."

The RAND Corporation study, commissioned by the National Institute of Health, reported adverse effects of Ephedra, citing 16,000 complaints leveled by people who took the drug. Following the publication of the RAND study, the FDA sent letters to 12 weight loss firms warning them not to make misleading claims about their products' ability to treat or cure a disease or condition such as obesity.

"The problem with supplements is that you don't always get what's advertised," Tappenden said.

Price said weight loss pills are safe as long as they are taken as directed, no more than 25 mg. per serving and no more than 100 mg. per day. Many products also suggest discontinuing after a period of three weeks, he said.

As an alternative to weight loss pills, Layman said dietitians recommend a combination of calorie control, diet and exercise. Without proper weight loss techniques, the weight will come back, he said. He said he was skeptical about successful future developments in weight loss pills, and said there is no fast solution.

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