The Truth About Diet Pills (& One Collegiette's Horror Story)

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Four years ago, Taylor wanted to lose a few pounds. She experimented with diet pills for three years off and on, from Hydroxy Cut to Quick Trim to lipozene and several others. Transferring schools caused her to put on a little weight, so she turned to diet pills as her main method of weight loss for an upcoming cheerleading season. In September, she was rushed to the hospital for swollen kidneys. In the past two months, she has been to the ER three times, all for kidney problems caused by diet pills.
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The sad truth is more and more collegiettes are succumbing to pressures to look like beanpoles from peers and the media. Instead of living a lifestyle committed to eating right and exercising regularly, they’re turning to a dangerous alternatives, like diet pills. Her Campus turned to health and wellness experts Jackie Keller, Susan Holmberg, and Catherine Garceau to get the skinny on the dangers of diet pills.

What are diet pills?

“Most of them fall into the category of appetite suppressants, although there is also the category of fat inhibitors,” says Jackie Keller, wellness coach and founding director of NutriFit, a healthy food company that provides full nutritional support, including fresh meals, food products, educational materials and Professional Wellness Coaching. “But the majority of what I see in [the college] age demographic is over-the-counter or prescription appetite suppressants. These primarily work by tricking the body into believing that you are not hungry, by affecting the brain chemicals that affect appetite.” Diet pills interfere with the hunger signals your brain sends to the rest of your body. Your body is no longer in command of determining one of its basic primary needs, which can start a domino effect with your body’s other cycles, like offsetting your body’s schedule when it comes to bowel movements and menstruation.

Susan Holmberg, a nutritionist, weight coach, and behavioral therapist explains, “diet pills often contain things that act as a laxative and types of fiber that would ideally keep you fuller longer.” Diet pills confuse your body into believing it does not need food when it most likely needs some fuel. Sure, you may be going down a pants size, but at what cost? Your brain and body no longer function naturally; they are under the influence of risky pills.

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So what’s in diet pills?

Most girls get so caught up in the excitement of losing weight they don’t even bother looking at the ingredients. Susan Holmberg explains the pills often contain stimulants like guarana (made from the seeds of a Brazilian plant that acts as a stimulant and diuretic) and caffeine. Anyone who has pulled an all-nighter with the help of espresso or Mountain Dew knows the side effects of too much caffeine (think jittery hands and racing heart). Ashley, a senior at Wake Forest, admits the stimulants got to her. “It made my heart rate abnormally fast to the point where it was really scary.  It also kept me up at nights and made me very jittery.”

Stimulants like guarana and caffeine not only increase your heart rate, they also induce a rush of adrenaline. “So your body is running on adrenaline, which stimulates the flight-or-fight instinct in your body and makes you feel stressed,” explains Catherine Garceau, Olympian and health educator. Feeling stressed becomes your body’s natural state of being—even when you aren’t stressed. This causes a lot of wear and tear on the body physically, mentally, and emotionally. The consistent adrenaline rush and feelings of stress tire out the body physically, but they also make girls think that feeling this way is healthy and normal—even though it isn’t.

How are girls getting a hold of diet pills?

The most common means of acquiring pills is by walking into a drugstore and picking them up over the counter sans prescription. The over-the-counter medications advertise that you must make changes to diet and exercise to see the results you desire, but there is no accountability. The problem here lies in the fact that no one is monitoring your weight loss, or the other side effects these pills can cause.

Some girls beg doctors to prescribe diet pills, promising they’ll use them to enhance the effects of eating right and exercising.  “Every doctor that I know who has been willing to prescribe any of these meds has done so with the promise from the patient that this is temporary and that they are just using it as a leg up to learn to make the changes I mentioned (healthy diet and exercise regimen),” says Holmberg. The bottom line is that diet pills are just an addition to a weight loss goal, not the star of the show. “Some physicians [prescribe pills] just to ‘help the patient get a jump start’, and because their default practice is to prescribe a pill,” says Keller.

Courtney, a student at Indiana University, was prescribed phentermine, a prescription diet pill, for adult ADHD. “I was hesitant at first because I was worried of the side effects.  However, not only did it help with my ADHD, I was losing weight too,” Courtney shares. She had a positive experience with the prescription, but doesn’t credit it to the fact that she lost weight. “Since I was taking it for a legitimate reason (other than losing weight) I may have experienced different side effects or results than someone else.  For example, a lot of people report loss of sleep and rapid heartbeat, but the medicine had the reverse effect on me and actually helped me feel more calm,” she says. You never know how your body will react to medication—prescription or otherwise—so doctor supervision is very important. You are in charge of your body; likewise, you are in charge of your health. “I would definitely tell women to consult a doctor before taking any kind of diet pill,” Courtney advises.

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About The Author

Mary Beth Hills is in her senior year of college, studying French and English literature for secondary education at Aquinas College. She spent last spring in Angers, France and can’t wait to visit again because the food is divine. When she’s not playing around in the kitchen, she's reading magazines or hanging out with her roommate and younger sister. Mary Beth lives for speaking French, watching obscene amounts of tv on dvd, baking pies, reading cookbooks, exploring downtown, and buying too many groceries at Meijer. Check out her food blog here