Diet Pills, Supplements, and Surgeries

Written by Leslie Goldman, MPH | Published on October 30, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD on October 30, 2014

Diet Pills, Supplements, and Surgeries

Given the amount of time and effort a solid weight-loss plan requires, quick fixes such as diet pills, supplements, and surgeries can hold a certain appeal. However, these quick fixes are often unsafe, unregulated, or too good to be true. Taking time to research all options and speak with your doctor can help you understand if these solutions would be a good option for you. Be sure to talk with a physician before you take any pill or decide to consider surgery, which always carries risks, including death.

Pills and Supplements

Some combinations may help you reach your goal weight when combined with a healthy diet and physical activity. However, many over-the-counter (OTC) diet pills that are available at health food stores, drugstores, and online are not regulated and may contain risky ingredients. That’s because supplements don’t have to adhere to the same strict standards as prescription drugs.

One common weight-loss pill is Alli, an OTC version of the drug orlistat (Xenical). Orlistat is a prescription medication at a higher dose than is available OTC. It works by decreasing the body’s absorption of dietary fat. This unabsorbed fat is removed from the body in the stool. For that reason, it is crucial that you adhere to a diet in which less than 30 percent of your daily calorie intake comes from fat. Otherwise you will experience side effects. These negative side effects can include loose stools or gas with oily spotting. Orlistat pills can be taken up to three times a day with meals. Since they block the absorption of certain fat-soluble vitamins, be sure to supplement with a daily multivitamin that contains vitamins A, D, E, K, and beta-carotene.

Green tea extract and Hoodia are also popular weight loss supplements. These are reported to boost fat metabolism and dampen appetite, respectively. However, scientific data on these products is mixed. One study found that Thai study subjects who drank green tea had increased metabolism, resulting in greater weight loss than those who were given a placebo. Studies involving green tea supplements are scarce. Due to the fact that the amount and quality of actual green tea in a supplement varies from pill to pill, it’s not guaranteed that you would get similar results as if you drank the tea like study subjects.

Hoodia is said to be a time-tested African plant that tribes have used for centuries to control hunger on long hunts. However, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine says no solid studies show proof that Hoodia assists in weight loss.

Ephedra was a supplement taken to decrease hunger, but it’s now considered unsafe. Once widely available and popular, it was found to cause possible trembling, headaches, irregular heartbeat, seizures, strokes, and even death. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of ephedra weight-loss pills in 2004.

Bariatric Surgery

Some doctors will suggest surgery for obese patients with weight-related health problems. These problems may include diabetes, heart disease, or sleep apnea. Only men who are at least 100 pounds overweight and women who are at least 80 pounds overweight are usually candidates for surgery.

Weight-loss surgery alters the digestive tract, resulting in significant weight loss. Common types include:

  • roux-en-Y gastric bypass (gastric bypass): reduces stomach size and causes food to bypass part of the small intestine
  • biliopancreatic diversion with duodenal switch: maintains some stomach function while bypassing most of the intestine
  • laparoscopic gastric banding (lap band): an inflatable band is placed around the upper portion of the stomach to restrict the amount of food the patient can consume

After surgery, patients must follow a special diet that allows the body to heal. This diet also encourages weight loss. It requires drastically reduced food intake, which usually begins with a liquid diet for a day or two after surgery. This liquid diet is followed by two to four weeks of pureed foods. In the third phase, soft solid foods may be added. After about eight weeks, most patients can return to eating firmer foods.

People who’ve had the surgery should avoid hard-to-digest items like:

  • nuts
  • seeds
  • popcorn
  • dried fruits
  • stringy or fibrous vegetables
  • tough meats

Weight loss surgery carries risks. Side effects may include:

  • infections
  • hernias
  • blood clots
  • nutritional deficiencies

Since the stomach is smaller after surgery, nausea and vomiting can occur if you eat or drink more than a small amount. Eating or drinking too quickly may cause dumping syndrome. This occurs when food and liquid enter your small intestine rapidly and in larger amounts than normal. It causes:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • dizziness
  • sweating

With proper care and attention to diet and exercise, weight-loss surgery patients can expect to lose 50 to 60 percent of excess weight within two years.

Doctors will most often suggest dieters try other options before considering supplements, prescription drugs, and weight-loss surgery. A reduced-calorie diet paired with increased physical exercise is the first choice. If diet and exercise are ineffective, or if progress is too slow and there are other medical conditions at play, your doctor may help you weigh the risks and benefits of these more invasive options. 

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