Do diet pills help you lose weight?

By Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D., CNS

My column earlier this week on dieters who take prescription medications that aren’t approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for weight-loss purposes, “Quick-fix diet drugs: Effective or harmful?,” prompted many “Today” readers to ask if there are any diet aids that could make it easier for them to lose some extra pounds more manageable. Losing weight is really hard, and we’re all looking for ways to make it easier. Here are some of your thoughts and queries that I hope will help you add effective tools to what I called your “weight-loss toolbox.”

Dear Dr. Fernstrom: Many people have successfully lost weight with a diet pill prescribed by a doctor and a weekly B12 shot. I was considering this diet plan. Is it really safe? — Sherri of Chicago

Dear Sherri: I cannot advise you whether this is safe or not, but you should track down accurate information about this plan. It is important for you to find out more information about the diet pill. Find out if it is a prescription medicine approved by the FDA for weight loss, and if so, do you meet the requirements for use. I encourage you to talk with your own doctor about this weight-loss plan. Do your homework. Do not start any diet plan, even it is says “medically supervised,” unless you know about the eating and exercise plan, the medicines to be used, the credentials of the doctor, and how your present health and lifestyle might fit with that plan. The best way to evaluate a weight-loss center, or a medical practice, is to choose one that encourages slow, steady weight loss over time and avoid ones that promise rapid weight loss. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Dear Dr. Fernstrom: If you were a diabetic, took Byetta, saw your blood sugars become normal,  and saw your weight go from 195 to 165 pounds in one year, you would be singing the praises of Byetta? — Ashley of Lincoln, Nebraska

Dear Ashley: You hit on the key point right now: You are diabetic and have had great success using Byetta, to treat your diabetes. It has helped your blood sugar to stabilize and helped you lose weight. This is a great thing for you, and other diabetics for whom this drug is intended. The problem is people who don’t have diabetes looking at this drug as if it will help them with their weight loss. This is what we call the “off label” use of the medicine — trying to use this when it is not indicated for use. And many some diabetics aren’t even candidates for this medicine. You are talking this drug for the indicated use, and it is working. This is very good news for you. People who aren’t diabetics should not be taking this medication.

Dear Dr. Fernstrom: I was thinking about taking Relacor. Have you heard of it, and what is your take on it? — Dorothy of  Hunrlwy, Ill.

Dear Dorothy: People often confuse prescription medications purchased for weight loss with over-the-counter dietary supplements, like Relacor, Hoodia, and others. These dietary supplements are not approved by the FDA for use, and have no demonstrated safety or effectiveness. While they are approved for sale in the U.S., you should use at your own risk, as there is no guarantee you won’t get sick or lose weight, as none of the claims are documented, except as personal stories. If you feel you need a boost to help your lifestyle effort, see your doctor to discuss one of the prescription medications approved for weight loss, or save your money on these unsubstantiated claims of such supplements, and hire a trainer or nutritionist to help you with your lifestyle effort.