Losing weight is not easy. Can medicine help? Learn what’s approved, what your doctor can prescribe, and what to avoid
Is there a magic pill for easy weight loss? You might think so if you believe advertising gimmicks. But weight loss isn’t that easy. The only “magic” formula is the one you’ve heard a million times: eat fewer calories and move your body more.
But if your weight puts you at high risk for medical problems, a doctor may suggest medication when diet and exercise alone do not work.
Prescription weight-loss medicines
Prescription weight-loss medicines have gone through rigorous study and approval processes. But you still need to take precautions when using them. If you have any side effects, contact your doctor.
These drugs are approved only for people whose weight is a health risk, and not for cosmetic weight loss. Doctors usually only prescribe weight loss medicine to those with a:
- Body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher
- BMI of 27 or higher and weight-related health issues such as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure
Weight-loss drugs should always be used in addition to lifestyle changes that includes cutting calories and increasing physical activity. Know that these drugs are not effective for everybody.
Drugs for short-term use
There are a few prescription medicines for weight loss that are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But they are only safe for short-term use (up to 12 weeks). These drugs include:
These medicines are appetite suppressants. They work by decreasing appetite or increasing the feeling of being full.
Each of these drugs has side effects and can be habit-forming. They cannot be used by people with certain health issues, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, or glaucoma.
A medicine for long-term use
Only one drug, orlistat (Xenical), is approved for long-term use (up to one year). But keep these things in mind:
- People with certain health conditions can’t take it.
- Some of the side effects can be unpleasant. These include bloating, diarrhea, anal leakage, and oily stools.
- Dangerous complications are possible, such as severe liver injury.
- The effects of long-term use are unknown.
Orlistat works by blocking the body’s absorption of fat from foods. Instead of being absorbed into the body, up to one third of the fat consumed is excreted in the stool.
But orlistat also keeps your body from absorbing fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, as well as beta-carotene. So you need daily vitamins if you take the drug. If you don’t follow the prescribed diet, side effects are more likely to occur.
People who use orlistat can expect to lose between 4 and 22 pounds, but some people lose more weight.
An over-the-counter option
A lower-dose version of orlistat, called Alli, is available over the counter. This is the only nonprescription weight loss drug approved by the FDA.
- Alli is a nonprescription version of orlistat. Just like orlistat, Alli is intended for use with a diet and exercise program. Weight loss is slow and modest. If you take in 2,000 calories (30 percent in fat) per day, Alli will block about 150 of those calories.
- Possible side effects of Alli are the same as with the prescription form of orlistat. These include gas, oily discharge, cramps, or diarrhea – sometimes uncontrollable. This mostly occurs if you eat too much fatty food while taking Alli.
Herbal weight loss formulas are not recommended. They could be harmful, and they have unpredictable amounts of active ingredients.
Look out for bogus claims
The Federal Trade Commission has issued these “red flags” for spotting diet product claims that are likely bogus and may be dangerous:
- You will lose 2 pounds or more each week (over a month or more) and you don’t have to diet or exercise.
- You can lose more than 3 pounds a week for more than four weeks, and the weight loss will be safe.
- You can eat all you want, and the more you eat, the more you lose.
- Your weight loss will be permanent, even when you stop using the product.
- Your body won’t absorb calories and fat if you use the product.
Check with your doctor first before you try any new product that promises to help you lose weight. And always take all medications – prescription and over-the-counter – exactly as directed.