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Some weight loss products can kill you: 5 tips to avoid danger

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Beware of dangerous diet products

There are a lot of weight-loss products being shamelessly promoted as magic pills that can melt pounds away, quickly and easily – without any effort on the dieter’s part. And, sadly, many consumers buy into the hype, wasting a ridiculous amount of money on products that simply don’t do what they claim.

Worse yet, some of these products can be dangerous, according to the Food and Drug Administration, which has discovered dozens of products being touted as dietary supplements but that actually contain hidden prescription drugs or compounds that have not been adequately studied in humans.

“These products are not legal dietary supplements,” says Michael Levy, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) Division of New Drugs and Labeling Compliance. “They are actually very powerful drugs masquerading as ‘all-natural’ or ‘herbal’ supplements, and they carry significant risks to unsuspecting consumers."

“We have seen deaths associated with these weight-loss products,” adds Levy. “Make no mistake—they can kill you.”

The FDA has found weight-loss products tainted with the prescription drug ingredient sibutramine, which is the same ingredient the FDA approved for the drug Meridia that has since been removed from the market. It was removed in October 2010 because it caused heart problems and strokes. Since then, the FDA has also found other prescription drug ingredients that have been removed from the market or never approved at all.

“We’ve found other weight-loss products marketed as supplements that contain dangerous concoctions of hidden ingredients including seizure medications, blood pressure medications, and other drugs not approved in the U.S.,” says Levy.

In a 58-page report released earlier this month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that the FDA is frequently unable to determine what caused an illness because these incident reports contain few details, and the search to discover how a product affects a person's health is complicated by "the growing number of complex supplements on the market".

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Most of the supplements identified in the "adverse event reports" (AERs) were either a combination of different types of dietary ingredients or supplements that FDA had not classified into one of its existing supplement categories, according to the report.While many of these tainted weight loss products are imported and sold on the Internet, some can also be purchased on store shelves. As a result, the FDA has made seeking out these dangerous products a priority to stop them from being imported and taking legal action against firms that manufacture and distribute them.

As a result, the FDA is reaching out to the dietary supplement industry for help in eliminating the availability and sale of these dangerous products. The agency is also enlisting the help of consumers.

“We also need consumers to be aware of these dangerous products and to learn how to identify and avoid them,” says Levy.

The FDA offers the following 5 tips for detecting potential warning signs of tainted products:

1. Promises of quick action, such as “lose 10 pounds in one week”
2. Use of the words “guaranteed” or “scientific breakthrough”
3. Labeled or marketed in a foreign language
4. Marketed through mass e-mails
5. Marketed as an herbal alternative to an FDA-approved drug or as having effects similar to prescription drugs

Generally, if you are using or considering using any product marketed as a dietary supplement, the FDA also advises doing the following:

1. Check with your health care professional or a registered dietitian about any nutrients you may need in addition to your regular diet
2. Ask your health care professional for help distinguishing between reliable and questionable information
3. Ask yourself if it sounds too good to be true
- Be cautious if the claims for the product seem exaggerated or unrealistic.
- Watch out for extreme claims such as “quick and effective” or “totally safe.”
- Be skeptical about "personal “testimonials” regarding incredible benefits or results obtained from using a product.

If you suspect a dietary supplement sold online may be illegal, FDA urges you to report that information online, or call 1-800-FDA-1088.

SOURCES: U.S. Food and Drug Administration; U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO)