Fat Burner Frenzy
The Lure of Thermogenic Pills and Potions
Drugs that promise fat burning, weight loss or "thermogenic" effects have been around for several decades.
In the 1990s it was fen-phen, the drug combination of fenfluramine & phentermine. Pharmaceutical companies sold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of product while ignoring warnings of side effects including a potentially fatal lung disease and heart valve problems.
It wasn't until doctors released echocardiogram results from patients taking both drugs that the extent of the problem emerged. Physicians found that approximately 30 percent of patients taking the drug combination had abnormal echocardiograms, even though they had no immediate symptoms.
In 1997 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requested fen-phen be taken off the market.
As one drug disappeared, another was quick to fill the gap. A plant known to the Chinese as ma huang was marketed to Americans under the name ephedra. The Ephedra sinica plant and other ephedra species increased heart rate, narrowed blood vessels (increasing blood pressure) and expanded bronchial tubes (making breathing easier.) Body heat went up and metabolism increased.
Because ephedra was sold as a supplement and not a drug, there was no government oversight needed when it was released to the public. When companies sell you a supplement, there are three critical areas where the government is NOT involved.
- The government does not make sure supplements are tested to prove they actually work. You are supposed to trust the manufacturer's word that whatever they say their product does is true.
- The government does NOT test supplements to make sure they contain the ingredients listed on the label. They leave it up to the manufacturers to be honest about what goes into each bottle.
- The government does NOT make sure supplements are tested for safety. It's the manufacturer's responsibility to make sure the product you're buying won't harm you.
Companies that made ephedra supplements had little research to back up their claims, but customers could feel their heart rate increase and clinical studies did show people who took ephedra lost an average of two pounds a month more than placebo takers. The plant also has an addictive quality so once people start taking it, they want to keep on taking it, further boosting sales.
Problems started to emerge almost as soon as ephedra became popular, but because it's a supplement and not a "drug" there was little oversight. Supplement companies were free to mix as little, or as much of the ephedra into each dose and customers had no way to evaluate what levels might be appropriate.
The best-selling brand of ephedra supplement was made by the company Metabolife, and they received over 14,000 complaints of "adverse events" associated with their product. Initially, Metabolife withheld the complaints from the FDA. After all, why risk sales because of a few upset customers?
Over time researchers found that ephedra can cause heart attacks, stroke and even death. People who take ephedra are between 100 and 700 times MORE likely to have a significant adverse reaction than people who take supplements like kava or Ginkgo biloba.
The FDA finally banned ephedra-containing supplements on April 12, 2004. But it didn't end there. A lawsuit overturned the ban on April 14, 2005. The FDA appealed the ruling and the ban on ephedra was reinstated August 17, 2006. That ban remains in place to this day.
That created a problem for companies that sold "fat burners." With their star ingredient gone, they had to find a replacement. Many started adding undeclared drugs or chemicals to their supplements. But by putting them in without authorization, the doses are wildly inconsistent, the side effects aren't noted on the labels and you, the customer, have no idea what's in each bottle.
The FDA has found undeclared drugs or chemicals in more than 70 weight loss supplements listed on the right.
How can you protect yourself? The FDA offers very simple advice. They list these clear signs of health fraud.
- Promises of an "easy" fix for problems like excess weight, hair loss, or impotency.
- Claims such as "scientific breakthrough," "miraculous cure," "secret ingredient," and "ancient remedy."
- Impressive-sounding terms, such as "hunger stimulation point" and "thermogenesis" for a weight loss product.
- Claims that the product is safe because it is "natural."
- If you see a product that advertises "thermogenic," "fat burning" or "rapid weight loss" DO NOT BUY IT. They are either lying, endangering your life with undocumented drugs or both.
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