Monday, May 24, 2010

The Danger of Diet Pills

Saturday May 15 2010 Irish Independent Weekend magazine.

With the sun coming out and holidays on the horizon, women will be sizing up their winter flab and wanting to lose excess pounds right now. Drastic weight-loss measures are called for, but you've tried all the diets and ultimately failed. You need help. And help can be pill-shaped.

Diet pills are so popular in Ireland, so widely used, that even as Reductil, the controversial appetite suppressant, was being withdrawn from the market in January, there were discussions from eager young mums who extolled the drug on the internet.

And no, they weren't scared by the ban. They were just anxious to know where they could procure a similar pill.

Gerry Ryan often spoke about diet pills. They worked for him, but made him anxious. On his death, some commentators wondered if their use might have sparked a heart attack. It certainly occurred to Suzanne Horgan. As director and founder of the Eating Disorder Resource Centre of Ireland ( she is well aware of the dangers of diet pills.

"Reductil was taken off the market because of its links with heart attacks and strokes," she says. "Back in the 1980s and 1990s drugs like Adifax were withdrawn because of bowel problems. All diet pills have huge side-effects; the effects can be worse than the weight problem."

Many women who attend weight watchers have previously tried diet pills. "They try everything," says Margaret Burke, PRO with WeightWatchers Ireland. "Diet pills can work. But when people stop the diet pills, the weight usually returns and sometimes they put on even more. Pills don't help you to make good lifestyle choices."

Margaret Fahy took her first diet pills at 34. She'd married, had her first baby, moved from London to remotest Mayo and her weight had ballooned to 14 stone.

"I'd had hormonal problems, and used fertility treatment," she says. "We wanted another child, and the first thing I had to do was lose weight. My GP put me on Xenical (orlistat) which works by decreasing the absorption of dietary fat.

"It didn't suit me. I felt sick when I ate anything and I had the most severe stomach cramps. I felt lethargic. I had no energy and I had the most terrible diarrhoea. I'd be in the middle of Penneys and would suddenly have to go to the toilet. Often I wouldn't make it.

"I found myself gorging on any food that did not give me cramps; that could be carrots or digestive biscuits. I took the pills for three months, but they weren't working for me. I lost about five pounds."

Margaret then tried exercise. She toned up and dropped two dress sizes, but she didn't lose weight. So her GP tried her on Reductil. This was 2004, when it was perceived as a new wonder drug.

"My GP did say, 'Don't, whatever you do fall pregnant'," says Margaret. "He said it could have adverse effects on the foetus. With Reductil I did cut down my portion sizes. I didn't eat as much, but I suffered from panic attacks. I had severe headaches and had terrible mood swings. I had post-natal depression and the pills made that worse. I'm surprised my marriage lasted -- those first years were horrendous!"

Margaret came off the pills after two months. She then became pregnant, had her second son, Owen, and six months after his birth became pregnant with her third. After Rory's birth in 2006, Margaret, now 14-and-a-half stone, returned to her doctor in despair.

"He said 'Give Reductil another go'. But it was back to mood swings and panic attacks. I'd have palpitations at the dinner table. My face would go on fire. I'd have them in the shower, too. It was unnerving.

"It was like being on speed. My mind was racing. I couldn't sleep. I'd go to bed by 10.30pm and be still awake at 2am. I'd be wide awake, and tossing. I'd get up, worried about disturbing Martin. Then at 8am I'd be exhausted, yet have to drop the boys at crèche before work."

Margaret came off the pills when her eldest son, Luke, was diagnosed with diabetes at six. She changed the family's diet; Martin lost two stone, but Margaret's weight stayed static.

"So it was back to the orlistat. Back to the migraine and diarrhoea. In three months I lost just four pounds."

Then Margaret discovered LighterLife ( Using the meal replacements, and attending the LighterLife counsellor, Margaret lost three stone -- and she's kept the weight off.

"The support was unbelievable," she says. "I'm now the LighterLife counsellor for Co Mayo. And GPs are referring clients to me."

Teen dieter

Mary O'Donoghue was 17 when she first discovered diet pills. She was on a bus, discussing her Debs, when one of her friends mentioned them. "I thought, 'Whoopee! A quick fix'," says Mary.

Mary was 13 stone at the time. A chunky child, she'd piled on the weight in her teens. "I had bad food habits," she says. "I worked in a newsagents at 14. That didn't help -- I ate the profits!"

It was a miserable life. Mary bought her clothes in Boyers -- more suitable for a woman of 70 than sixteen.

"I went to the doctor; he prescribed Adifax. He told me to go back every two weeks. I didn't tell my mum." The pills worked wonders.

"I lost weight quickly. I was giddy. Life had sped up and I was delighted. I felt great because I wasn't eating. I was full of energy and needed very little sleep. I'd be up, cleaning my room at 4am. I lost about three stone. I went shopping with my friends for my Debs dress. I looked like everyone else. That was brilliant."

The effects, though, didn't last. Mary piled the weight back on, and over the next 13 years her weight yo-yoed. She tried every diet going; every product advertised. And she went back on the diet pills.

"I'd go to the doctor, get a prescription and lose seven pounds. They gave me Ponderax -- I think Adifax was off the market by then. I'd run around, giddy and hyper, but I never told anyone. And when I stopped the weight went on. I crept up to 15 stone.

"Then, one day, I went to the chemist near work where they didn't know me. The pharmacist was reluctant to give me the pills; she wanted to ring my doctor. I was mortified. I got the pills but alarm bells rang. I realised they might be dangerous. And Ponderax is now off the market."

At 30, Mary saw sense. She joined Weight Watchers, and when she lost weight two weeks in a row she realised this was a system that could work for her.

"WeightWatchers is a lifestyle change," she says. "I took off five stone, and 11 years on the weight is still off. I'm a leader, and I'm healthier and happier than I've ever been. And WeightWatchers is legitimate. You can tell people you are on it. My mother still doesn't know about the diet pills."

- Sue Leonard

Irish Independent

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