Debunking the Dangerous Science Behind Weight Loss Pills

Pills on a table with a glass of water

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Our culture puts a massive amount of pressure on female-presenting people to meet insanely high standards around beauty and weight. Whether scrolling through Instagram, shopping, or listening to a podcast, there's some form of weight loss messaging or advertising pretty much everywhere you turn. Simply put, diet culture is all around us.

Given this cultural obsession with food and weight, it's important for us to keep you well informed on weight-loss trends so that you know which ones to steer clear of.

One trend, in particular, that's been around for ages and doesn't seem to be going anywhere is weight loss pills. Long story short, taking weight loss pills without the guidance of a board-certified physician is extremely dangerous and not recommended. Most aren't very effective despite grandiose marketing claims, and they can carry some pretty serious side effects.

We spoke to registered dietitians Kristin Gillespie and Brittany Lubeck, who told us all about weight loss pills, how they claim to work, and healthier alternatives. Read on for what they had to say.

Meet the Expert

What Are Weight Loss Pills and How Do They Claim to Work?

Weight loss pills come in a number of different forms. "Most [FDA-approved pills] decrease appetite or make you feel full sooner by interacting with certain hormones, while one, Orlistat, blocks fat absorption in the body," Lubeck says. "These pills are pretty serious stuff, and some come with possible addiction warnings."

In addition to these FDA-approved medications, unregulated weight loss supplements are also popular and readily available to many. They tend to make bold marketing claims, promising quick and easy weight loss without any change in diet, exercise, or other lifestyle habits.

The trouble with these weight loss pills is that they're a bit controversial. Some come with serious health risks, and many carry side effects. For these reasons, many physicians and dietitians do not recommend diet pills of any form to their patients, unless the patient has tried to lose weight unsuccessfully for a prolonged period of time.

"Dietitians and physicians are very rarely going to recommend weight loss pills," Gillespie says, pointing out that most weight loss and diet pills are not proven to be effective—or they stimulate weight loss by impairing nutrient absorption, which can ultimately lead to deficiencies. "A few clinicians may recommend these if the patient's weight is significantly impacting their overall health and no other options are available," says Gillespie.

Why You Should Opt for Lifestyle Changes Instead of Weight Loss Pills

As with many other medications and supplements, weight loss pills carry the potential for side effects like nausea, diarrhea, constipation, increased blood pressure or heart rate, dizziness, and more. They can also contribute to micronutrient deficiencies.

Another huge safety concern is the fact that many weight loss pills are not FDA-approved. Dietary supplements are completely unregulated, the FDA points out on its website, and they may contain harmful ingredients that aren't listed on the product label. For this reason, it's crucial to check in with a doctor or registered dietitian before taking any sort of weight loss medication or supplement.

Another potential problem with diet pills is that many people will quickly regain any weight they've lost once they stop taking the pill or supplement. "This is the same story we frequently hear from people who go on a diet and regain weight once off the diet," says Lubeck. "The bottom line is, medications cannot and should not replace healthy food and activity habits."

Small lifestyle changes are a far more realistic and sustainable way forward than taking diet pills and are much better for your physical and mental health. "Lifestyle changes will result in more sustainable weight loss and overall healthier habits," Gillespie says.

Healthy Alternatives to Weight Loss Pills

Increase Your Physical Activity

Aim to incorporate more movement into your day, even if it's just a small amount. And remember that exercise doesn't need to be a chore—find something you enjoy and make movement a fun part of your day. It's way easier to make exercise a habit when you find a type of movement you love.

"We often think exercise has to be intense and miserable for it to matter, but that is simply not true," Lubeck says. "Joyful movement can look different for everybody, as there is no one perfect exercise we all need to be doing—just like there is no one perfect diet we should all be following."

Eat More Mindfully and Intuitively

Mindful and intuitive eating can help you learn to be more in tune with cues that let you know you're hungry or full. This will help you get better at listening to your body, while also helping you move toward a way of eating that's satisfying and nonrestrictive.

Eat Nutrient-Dense Foods

Aim to load up your meals with fruits, vegetables, and other nutritious foods, while reducing processed items like chips, cookies, and sweets. If you're not sure exactly how to put this recommendation into practice, Lubeck shares a great idea. "Instead of taking certain types of food away, add food to your meals," she says. "You could add an extra vegetable or two to a recipe, top cereal with fruit, substitute white sandwich bread with whole-grain bread, or swap one or two red meat dishes with turkey or chicken."

Drink More Water

Don't underestimate the importance of hydration—when it comes to our health, water really does work wonders. "Hydration is incredibly important, and many people are walking around unknowingly dehydrated, which causes tons of side effects that can appear to be caused by something else, like fatigue, headaches, dry skin, dry mouth, and lightheadedness," Lubeck says.

If you're someone who often forgets to drink water, start carrying a reusable water bottle with you—you'll be amazed by how much easier it is to stay hydrated when you're prepared.

Make a List Before Grocery Shopping

Sticking to a plan at the supermarket helps you resist impulse purchases. "Although fun snacks and treats are okay and do not need to be completely avoided, try to have plenty of nutrient-rich foods at home so you will have plenty of healthful options when it is time to eat," Lubeck says.

The Takeaway

If a diet pill seems too good to be true, it probably is. Most diet pills do not help with long-term weight loss, and they carry far more risks and side effects than benefits. They can be very dangerous, and should not be taken unless recommended—and closely monitored—by a certified physician.

Rather than dabbling with weight loss pills, consider lifestyle changes like eating more nutritious, nutrient-dense foods and incorporating more movement into your day, if possible.

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