Monday, July 21, 2014

Diet Drugs That Work – Are They Right for You?

If you’ve ever tried to lose weight and keep it off, you know it’s tough. Many people get lured into over-the-counter gimmicks that are unproved, not approved by the FDA, and may even be dangerous.  But what many people don’t know is that two medicines have been approved by the FDA for long term weight loss. And if you’ve struggled with weight loss over the years, these may give you the boost you need. Interestingly, not many primary care doctors are using these helpful tools to help their obese patients.

Some of this reluctance may be a holdover from the fen-phen fiasco back in the 90’s. Fen-phen was a combination of two drugs – fenfluramine and phentermine that had been FDA-approved separately. When used together, they seemed to speed up weight loss. However, the combination of the two drugs had never been studied nor approved. While it is legal for doctors to prescribe combinations of separately approved medicines in what is called “off label use”, it can be dangerous. This was the case with fen-phen.  The dangerous combination of the two weight loss medicines caused heart valve disease and the fatal disease primary pulmonary hypertension in some patients.

But the good news is that newer and safer weight loss medications are now available. But they are not for everyone. If you just want to lose a few pounds before your high school reunion, your doctor should not prescribe these for you. However if you have:
  •   A BMI of 30 or higher
  •  A BMI of 27or higher and health problems that are related to body weight like diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease

Your doctor may consider prescribing one of these medicines for you. To find out what your BMI is, use this BMI Calculator on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website.

Two of the FDA-approved weight loss drugs that are the most effective are:

o   Dose: 10 mg tablet twice a day
 o   How it works: Belviq activates hunger control mechanism in the brain
 o   The research: Researchers tested Belviq in three large clinical studies from 1 to 2 years with a total of 8,000 overweight and obese participants. Almost half (47%) of the people in the studies lost at least 5% of their total body weight after 12 weeks. The participants taking Belviq lost 3 to 3.7% more of their body weight than the participants on the placebo.


o   Dose: the once-a-day dose varies based on how you respond to the medication.

o   How it works: Qsymia is a combination of two medicines: phentermine and
topirmate. The combination reduces appetite (how much you eat) and your desire to eat.
  • The research: Researchers tested Qsymia in two large clinical studies that included almost 3,700 overweight and obese participants. On the lowest dose, the participants lost 6.7% more weight than the participants on the placebo . On the recommended dose (the middle dose), participants lost an average of 8.9% more than those on the placebo. Sixty-two percent of the participants on the lowest dose and 70 percent of the participants in the recommended dose groups lost at least 5% of their total body weight compared to 20% of the participants in the placebo group.     
  A very important point to remember here is that all of the participants were still dieting and exercising. None of these medications will magically melt the pounds away – you still need to change your health habits. But they can help you lose weight better than diet and exercise alone. These medications also have possible side effects that you should discuss with your doctor.

Beth Kitchin, PhD, RDN
Assistant Professor, Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham

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