Do Diet Pills and Supplements Work?

By Richard Asa and Sherry Baker @SherryNewsViews
February 08, 2023
Do Diet Pills and Supplements Work?

There are proven, healthy ways to lose weight — but there’s no pill or supplement you can take to make pounds magically disappear.

If you’ve tried to lose weight and fallen for ads hawking diet aids that promise to make pounds melt away, you aren’t alone. Americans spend more than $33 billion a year on weight-loss products. Yet, there are no powders, plants, or potions you can buy over the counter, online, or at health food stores that will accomplish your goal to lose weight quickly, at least not safely.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several prescription drugs — both pills and injections — for weight loss, including:

  • Bupropion-naltrexone (Contrave)
  • Liraglutide (Saxenda)
  • Orlistat (Xenical, Alli)
  • Phentermine-topiramate (Qsymia)
  • Semaglutide (Wegovy)
  • Setmelanotide (Imcivree)
  • Tirzepatide (Mounjaro)

The drugs work in different ways (some dull appetite, others make a person feel full, and a few block fat absorption), and they are usually reserved for people with obesity or who have excess pounds causing an existing health problem to worsen. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) warns that, while side effects of prescription weight loss drugs may be mild, the medications vary in how they act on different people’s physiology.


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In fact, the NIDDK says the side effects may outweigh the benefits for some people, and serious health side effects can occur. What’s more, health insurance may not cover the cost of weight loss medications, which can be very expensive. For example, the injectable weight loss drugs originally developed to treat diabetes cost over $1,000 for a month’s supply.

Unfortunately, many people look for a quick fix for their excess pounds with a supplement or herbal concoction, and some of these supposed quick weight loss “miracles” have been dangerous. In fact, the FDA has taken action against a long list of products sold to consumers as being safe for weight loss but, in fact, contained potentially dangerous drugs not listed on the label (or even legal).

Whether a person is taking a legitimately prescribed and monitored prescription drug or trying to lose pounds on their own, healthy and sustainable weight loss involves persistence, patience, vigilance, incorporating more activity and exercise into your life, and consulting your healthcare provider for guidance, when needed.

When it comes down to it, you have to work at burning more calories than you consume.

“Too often, people who are desperate for an effortless path to losing weight and becoming trimmer allow themselves to become victims of modern-day snake oil salesmen,” says the watchdog group Public Citizen. “As a consumer, you can protect yourself by applying a simple rule when evaluating marketing claims: If it sounds too good to be true, don’t waste your money.”

Another consumer health watchdog, Quackwatch, notes that, despite unprecedented law enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission, deceptive weight-loss advertising is rampant.

To make it harder for you to steer clear, many of these weight loss products are pushed by well-known celebrities and influencers. Keep in mind that just because someone has a television show or popular social media app channel doesn’t mean the person is an expert on weight loss products.

People have been refining the art of weight loss schemes for more than a century, notes Yoni Freedhoff, MD, founder of the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa, Ontario. In a journal report, Freedhoff writes about some of his 20th century weight loss memorabilia.

One, the Relaxacizor, employed electric shocks as a treatment for obesity. More than 400,000 units were sold between 1949 and 1970, until the FDA stopped sales.

“Visit any drugstore and you'll find that there is no shortage of magic pills for obesity, but that's nothing new,” writes Freedhoff, author of “The Diet Fix.” “Of this grouping of products from the past, the only one that “worked” was Obese Factor — yes, amphetamines.”

Researchers did find some good news about two time-tested weight loss programs, Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. Both have successfully helped thousands of people (for a fee) reach their weight goals.

The study concluded that you can achieve significant weight loss through any healthy diet that cuts excess calories and carbs, but you have to stick to it.

Another study found that a good working relationship with your primary care doctor can also help you follow substantiated weight loss programs and keep you off quackery road.


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February 08, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA, and Janet O’Dell, RN