Over-the-counter Diet Pills: Can They Help You Lose Weight This Holiday Season?

Dec 3, 2019 | Featured, Healthy Living, In The Community, News

Get the skinny on the effectiveness and safety of non-prescription diet pills and supplements.

Ah, the holidays. The season of chilly weather, hot cocoa, family fun, and – who could forget – food. Yes, it’s food that seems to be the focal point of most holiday gatherings. And it’s this appetite for all things festive and delicious that causes many Americans to put on one to two pounds between Thanksgiving and the New Year. It might not sound like much, but for many of us, that seemingly insignificant weight gain adds up year over year.

Understandably, holiday season weight creep often spurs a number of tricks and trends to avoid weight gain and overeating – including the use of over-the-counter diet pills and supplements. These little tablets make big promises that can be hard to pass up. But are over-the-counter diet pills and supplements really effective? And more importantly, are they safe? We asked a couple of experts at Associates in Family Medicine to weigh in on the matter. Here’s what they had to say.

How do over-the-counter diet pills work?
Most non-prescription diet pills and supplements, including popular solutions like Hydroxycut and MetaboLife, are stimulant derivative. “Basically, they use high levels of caffeine or something natural that mimics caffeine in hopes of suppressing appetite and increasing calories burned,” says Eva Cassel, Health and Wellness Coach and Certified Personal Trainer at Associates in Family Medicine.

One exception to this rule is alli, the only over-the-counter diet pill approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The alli pill contains orlistat, which is an active ingredient found in a prescription diet pill. “Orlistat makes it hard for the gut to absorb dietary fat,” explains AFM physician Joseph Prows, MD. “Since the intestines aren’t absorbing that fat, it has to come out somehow – which can mean some very unpleasant GI side effects, to say the least.”

Are over-the-counter diet pills effective?
We know these tiny capsules can pack a significant stimulant punch (plus some less-than-favorable side effects). But do their promises of weight loss actually “hold weight”?

According to Cassel, people may experience minor weight loss using non-prescription pills and supplements, but probably not for long. “What people don’t always consider is the detrimental effect these solutions may have on their future ability to lose weight,” says Cassel. They can interfere with metabolism, lead to unsustainable, rapid weight loss, and eventually cause the body to produce hormones that can actually increase hunger and decrease the drive for exercise.”

What are the risks with over-the-counter diet pills?
There are a number of other risks associated with over-the-counter diet pills. For one, these tablets and supplements are not regulated or approved by the FDA, which means the ingredients you see on the label might not be what’s going into your body. “You have no idea what you’re getting,” says Dr. Prows. “It’s a big question mark for anyone.”

Cassel echoes Dr. Prows’s concerns. “At the very least, you could be duped by the label,” she explains. “On the other end of spectrum, certain herbs, supplements, or ingredients can interfere with underlying conditions or medications, including dangerous cardiac conditions, metabolic disorders, high blood pressure, and heart murmurs.”

When people using non-prescription weight loss solutions don’t consult their primary care provider, they are more likely to experience some of the issues Cassel describes. “If we don’t know what a patient is taking, we can’t council them on what the side effects might be or maintain a healthy continuity of care,” says Cassel.

What about diet trends?
Needless to say, your chances of finding an over-the-counter diet pill or supplement that’s both highly effective and safe isn’t great. And according to Dr. Prows, “There’s no substitute for a well-balanced diet and exercise that combines cardio with strength and flexibility. Period.”

But what about the catalog of diet fads out there that seem to be effective for so many people?

Paleo, Atkins, Keto, intermittent fasting… the list goes on and it’s ever changing. And these diets get hype for good reason. Many people do experience weight loss with most, if not all, of these diet approaches. Yet as Cassel is quick to remind us, temporary efforts lead to temporary results, so the most important part of weight loss is considering a lifestyle approach.

“What works for one person doesn’t always work for another,” she says. “Every body (pun intended) is different. You have to make sure it’s something you can stick with. Because radical diets, much like non-prescription diet pills, result in temporary, unsustainable results. There’s just no silver bullet.”

Healthier living, one step at a time
While many of us would love to believe in a magic pill, diet, or in Cassel’s words, “silver bullet,” to lose weight, the more effective, permanent solution can’t be denied: Intentional, sustainable steps over a long period of time. So what are some of those steps?

1. Determine what’s driving the weight issue. “Many times there’s a psychological component like stress or emotional trauma at the center,” says Cassel. “Finding a health provider or coach to guide you through that piece of your weight struggle is huge.”
2. Practice clean eating. Moving away from processed and refined foods is always a win. Increasing your intake of non-starchy veggies also introduces important fiber and water into your body that can provide natural appetite control and remedy nutritional deficiencies.
3. Stay on the move. An oldie but a goodie for a reason. Exercise is ¬– and always will be – critical to maintaining a healthy weight and a healthy body.
4. Find balance in life. According to Dr. Prows and Cassel, stress contributes very negatively to body weight. Doing what it takes to find calm and balance throughout your days is key for both emotional and physical health.

Staying healthy and avoiding weight gain during the holidays
Okay, okay, okay… we’ve come to terms with the fact that healthy, sustainable weight loss takes time and intentionality. But where does that leave us as the food-filled festivities of the holidays fast approach? Thankfully, Dr. Prows and Cassel have some practical tips for us there, too.

1. Work some cardio into every day. “Build fun movement into your family traditions,” Cassel suggests. Go for a walk after dinner, play a game of football, or participate in local events like the Turkey Trot.
2. Laugh a lot. “It burns a lot of calories, and it’s just plain good for you,” says Dr. Prows.
3. Be mindful of your food. “It doesn’t mean you have to be exceedingly strict with what you eat,” says Dr. Prows. “But definitely be conscious about it.” To encourage mindful eating, Cassel recommends eating a small, healthy snack before social gatherings – preferably one that combines lean protein and fiber. “This helps stabilize blood sugar and down regulate signals in the brain that say ‘eat, eat, eat,’” Cassel explains.
4. Drink plenty of water. “We often confuse thirst with hunger,” says Cassel. Taking a break from that tasty holiday cocktail and reaching for good-old H2O can help suppress an over-active appetite.
5. Think ahead. Take time before holidays about what intentions you want to have and the goals you have for yourself all year. Then, as Dr. Prows so wisely says, “Stick to that New Year’s resolution.”

The trimmed down (wink, wink) version
Thinking about the vast amounts of foods we consume throughout the holidays might prompt anxiety in many of us who want to enjoy the merriment without adding to our waistlines. But if we’re looking for instant weight loss solutions, we’re not likely to find any – despite the bold promises of many over-the-counter diet pills and supplements.

That’s why it’s important to approach weight maintenance and weight loss with a sustainable, lifestyle approach in mind. And hey, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a leftover turkey sandwich or a piece of pie. “Balance and moderation are key,” says Dr. Prows.

So, as you head into the holidays, be mindful of your goals, follow the tips here, and remember there’s no instant approach to weight loss. It’s about making smart, intentional choices for your body – this time of year and all year round.

A side note from AFM:
We know that weight loss is a challenging, multi-faceted issue for many patients. If you’ve tried a healthy lifestyle approach to weight loss and are still struggling, our providers and care team are here to help explore the safe, effective options available to you.

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