Watch what you eat. Exercise. Count your calories. Diet, diet, diet.

Our society’s obsession with thinness as the end-all-be-all has led to the birth of a multi-billion dollar weight loss industry. The market has become flooded with supplements – diet pills – designed to make you a weight loss success story. The answer to all prayers, right?

Elaine Gormley thought so. 

Elaine had suffered with her weight since childhood. In her early 20s, she signed up with Slimming World and subscribed to a regimen of balanced nutrition and exercise. She was then finally happy in her health after she shed near 150 pounds. 

However, life caught up. At the end of a long-term relationship, she found herself returning to old habits. Within eight months, she regained the weight she had worked off. 

“My self-confidence diminished completely,” Elaine told The Tempest.

“At the time, I was working in a hotel. I chose to commit to overtime to avoid socializing outside. This was also so I wouldn’t have to wear any clothes apart from my work uniform.”

She then heard of the diet pills Dexaprine, their promising results, and ordered them in from Amazon. 

“The pills were lime green in color, large, and smelled similar to weed. Within 10 minutes of taking them, I was sweating profusely. My heartbeat became rapid. My fingers were shaking.

“On the third day, I weighed myself and found I’d dropped eight pounds. But on that day, I also suffered from frightening palpitations. My chest really started to ache and I genuinely thought I was going to die. I stuck my fingers down my throat and threw them up on the table,” she said.

“Within 10 minutes of taking the diet pills, I was sweating profusely. My heartbeat became rapid. My fingers were shaking.”

“This one act could have cost me my life. I felt so guilty and ashamed for stooping to pills because I knew better,” added the now Slimming World Consultant. 

Dexaprine has been described as a “cocktail of synthetic stimulants” and contains amphetamine-like substances which have been linked to a host of issues including psychiatric disorders and heart diseases. It has also been cited as a cause of death.

Unfortunately, Elaine’s case is far from isolated, and Dexaprine is far from being the only diet pill with a bad rap. 

One of the earliest mock-ups of diet pills came in the form of a combination of fenfluramine and phentermine or fen-phen. It quickly skyrocketed to become the go-to weight loss pill in the 90s until patients began to report some horrifying side effects – heart valve damage, kidney failure, pulmonary hypertension. 

See, the pills “work”. You do lose weight but along with that, you gain a host of health issues, bad enough to warrant multiple ER trips.

“The popularity of diet pills stems from their claim for rapid weight loss without asking for a lifestyle change,” said Dubai-based dietician, Nadine Tayara, who is also a co-founder of KeepEATreal, a nutrition and food consultancy business, in an email interview with The Tempest. 

“It isn’t healthy, it isn’t sustainable, and it definitely isn’t realistic. Diet pills can either act as an appetite suppressant, work on increasing your body’s metabolism, or reduce the amount of fat absorption when food is consumed.

“However, many diet pills have been banned due to the associated health risks. Some of the harmful risks include diarrhea, irregular or increased heart rate, increased risk of heart attack or even a stroke, upset stomach, constipation, rectal bleeding, insomnia, elevated blood pressure, and restlessness,” she explained.

Yet, the market continues to flood with such products.

A quick search of Amazon reveals Burn XT, Alli, and Pure Garcinia Cambogia Extract to be in the top five best-sellers in diet pills. The former shows a 68 percent positive rating and while its top comments are lauding its weight loss capabilities, they’re still acknowledging side effects like dizziness, nausea and fatigue – all signs of serious underlying issues.

Similar issues were reported with Alli as well which already openly admits to side effects like stomach pain, poor bowel control, oily spottings, rectal pain and more.

And the latter – Garcinia Cambogia Extract – while trafficking under the guise of natural extracts, is just as deadly. The rind of the fruit contains the substance hydroxycitric acid which has been identified to curb appetites and keep sugar from converting into fat. However, in concentrated pill form, it can lead to liver damage.

These three products practically guarantee health issues and they’re the real products. The market is just as flooded with knockoffs with far more harrowing results.

As most diet pills are categorized under dietary supplements rather than nonprescription drugs, it keeps bodies like the Food and Drug Administration from reviewing the products for safety and efficacy. In short, the non-FDA approved products lining the walls may not contain what they say they do, and may even contain something else altogether.

Diet pills, then, are rarely ever prescribed unless under extreme circumstances when weight puts the person at serious risk. Even then, they’re accompanied by strict nutrition and exercise. This includes vitamins as well to make up for an inevitable deficiency.

Therefore, unless prescribed professionally, steer away from diet pills. At the end of the day, the market for such schemes only carries water because of the toxic environment that mass media has created with its limited scope of beauty and health by exclusively associating thinness to it.

According to The Eating Disorder Foundation, in 1970, the average girl began dieting at the age of 14. By 1990, that number dropped down to eight. In 2019, it isn’t any better.

And one doesn’t need to look beyond the search results of the term “weight loss” for evidence of it. You’ll find the ‘People also ask’ section of Google featuring questions like “How do you lose 10 pounds in a week?” and “What are the best diets?” as well as results pointing you to articles on quick tips and trips to losing weight fast. It’s all about achieving the body rather than achieving sustainable, healthy living habits.

“Diversify the damn aesthetic.”

In fact, thinness is a misleading indicator of health as different bodies hold different weight points. At the end of the day, as long as your internal systems are functioning within the required health parameters of your age group, nothing else really matters in that regard. And if self-esteem is what’s sought after, studies have shown that it’s more about assessing one’s image of self rather than watching the number on a scale.

The diet pills market needs to disappear. One way to do so is to raise further awareness of their harmful effects. Ultimately, though, we need to battle the narrative that fixates on one kind of body.

“Diversify the damn aesthetic”, said psychotherapist Susie Orbach in an interview with The Guardian.

“How to stop these pills from being attractive?” asks Orbach. “There’s the rub. It isn’t one thing, it’s systemic, which means we need to help parents and educators relax about food and bodies so their preoccupations don’t become their children’s addictions.

“We need to prosecute [slimming pill] companies for false advertising. We need to show bodies moving and active at all sizes. And we need to start to question the narrow aesthetic and the notion that body is all,” she continued.

That’s a movement we can definitely get behind. Though, it’s an easy enough sentiment to share but a hard one to commit to.

We all acknowledge the toxic narratives we’ve been fed consistently over the years but to untangle ourselves from them takes more than simple motovation. It’s a hard, ongoing process, and the biggest fight to win isn’t with the media or anyone else, it’s with ourselves.

Your weight says nothing about your character, your essence, and your looks don’t either.

Your health is what matters in the end and we need to stop sacrificing it in order to achieve this decade’s new “ideal”.

  • Sana Panjwani

    Armed with a journalism degree and a passion for reading, Sana is on a mission to find her voice, gives Would You Rather? questions a little too much thought and is a recovering procrastinator.