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Weight Loss Drugs and Supplements: Do They Work?

Debra Gordon

Last updated: November 22, 2016 3:17 pm

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Approximately 70 percent of men and 64 percent of women in this country are overweight (a body mass index [BMI] between 25 and 29.9), while a third are obese (BMI of 30 or higher).

Being overweight or obese has serious implications for your health, including an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and certain cancers.

Prescription Drugs for Weight Loss

Although diet and exercise are part of any weight loss effort, sometimes you need more. That’s where prescription medications come in. In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first new medications for weight loss in 13 years: Qsymia, a combination of the stimulant phentermine and topiramate (used for migraine and epilepsy), and Belviq (lorcaserin), which activates certain chemicals in the brain related to appetite and fullness.

Studies show that in combination with diet and exercise, these drugs can help you lose more weight than the two alone. In the Belviq studies, those taking the drug lost between 3 and 4 percent of their body weight; with about half of those without type 2 diabetes losing at least 5 percent of their body weight. Those taking Qsymia lost 6.7 to nearly 9 percent of their body weight, depending on the dose taken, with 62 percent of those on the lowest dose (3.75 mg phentermine/23 mg topiramate) and 70 percent of those on the recommended dose of 7.5 mg/46 mg losing at least 5 percent.

The most common side effect of Belviq is headache. There is a risk of more serious side effects with Qsymia, however, such as increased heart rate, suicidal thoughts, and eye problems. In addition, women who plan to get pregnant or who are pregnant should not take either drug. Not only is it potentially dangerous to lose weight while pregnant, Qsymia can cause serious birth defects.

Recalled Weight Loss Product: alli

In March of 2014 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a press release 1 alerting consumers that GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is withdrawing all lots of its well-known weight loss product alli®.  GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Consumer Healthcare is voluntarily recalling all alli® weight loss products from U.S. and Puerto Rico retailers as the company believes that some packages of the product were tampered with and may contain product that is not authentic alli®.

GSK received inquiries from consumers in seven states about bottles of alli® that contained tablets and capsules that were not alli®. These states include Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, and Texas. 2 A range of tablets and capsules of various shapes and colors were reported to be found inside bottles. Additionally, some bottles inside the outer carton were missing labels and had tamper-evident seals that were not authentic. These tampered products were purchased in retail stores.

alli_recall_ilalli® is a turquoise blue capsule with a dark blue band, imprinted with the text “60 Orlistat”. It is packaged in a labeled bottle that has an inner foil seal imprinted with the words: “Sealed for Your Protection.” Consumers should confirm any alli® in their possession matches this description.

Consumers who have product they are unsure or concerned about should not use it. Instead, they should call GSK promptly at 800-671-2554, and a representative will provide further instructions. If they have consumed questionable product, they should also contact their healthcare providers.

alli® (60 mg orlistat capsules) is the only FDA approved over-the-counter weight loss aid clinically proven to help boost weight loss efforts. alli® is for weight loss in overweight adults, 18 years and older when used along with a healthy low-fat diet and exercise.  It is produced by GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare which is one of the world’s largest over-the-counter consumer healthcare products companies.

FDA has not received any reports of adverse events related to alli®. If consumers think they may have taken tampered alli®, they should contact their health care professional. For more information, GSK has posted a Consumer Alert on their website, www.myalli.com, and issued a press release with information and photographs to help consumer determine if their alli® is authentic.  They have also posted a Questions and Answers webpage to help consumers identify tampered products and the particular lot number under investigation.

Weight Loss Promises

In addition to prescription drugs, the drugstore shelves (and Internet) are jammed with weight loss supplements promising quick and easy results. However, the FDA warns consumers to stay away from them, since many contain tainted or even dangerous ingredients. For instance, the agency found several contained the prescription drug sibutramine, which can cause heart problems and stroke.

The FDA lists the following warning signs that a product is fraudulent:

  • It promises quick action, such as “lose 10 pounds in one week.”
  • It uses words like “guaranteed” or “scientific breakthrough.”
  • It is labeled or marketed in a foreign language.
  • It is marketed through mass e-mails.
  • It is marketed as an herbal alternative to an FDA-approved drug or as having effects similar to prescription drugs.
  • It sounds too good to be true.

You can report any concerns about weight loss supplements you find online or report any side effects from weight loss drugs and supplements to the FDA. In addition, the agency offers more information about weight loss fraud as well.

  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Recalls, Market Withdrawals, & Safety Alerts. Glaxosmithkline Recalls Alli® [Internet] Last Updated: March 28, 2014 available at: http://www.fda.gov/safety/recalls/ucm391004.htm, accessed April 1, 2014 

  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Drug Safety and Availability. FDA warns consumers not to purchase or use weight loss product Alli. [Internet] Last Updated: March 28, 2014 available at: http://www.fda.gov/drugs/drugsafety/ucm391046.htm, accessed April 1, 2014