It is impossible to flip through a magazine or watch television without witnessing a reminder of how weight-obsessed our culture is. From popular television shows such as CW's "America's Next Top Model," to Hollywood tabloids showcasing ever-thinning celebrities, to advertisements for products promising to be the ultimate weight-loss solution, it appears that ours is a nation seeking weight perfection. For some, there are no boundaries as to how far they will go or how much they will spend in order to be thin.
According to Glenn Gaesser, professor of kinesiology in the Education School, Americans spend $100 million a day on weight loss, yet they are more obese than ever before.
The weight-loss supplement industry promises that consumers will lose weight, but, according to Erica Perkins, director of fitness for Intramural-Recreational Sports, such products "are at best ineffective, and at worst, dangerous."
Particularly frightening is that many consumers may not even be aware of the potential risks in taking weight-loss supplements.
"With the Internet making them easier to purchase, consumers are purchasing them without realizing the consequences and long-term ineffectiveness," Perkins said.
Gaesser explained that weight-loss supplements generally fall into three categories: supplements that are designed to speed up metabolism, known as thermogenics, supplements that suppress appetite and those that block the absorption of fat calories.
Perkins emphasized some important facts that she said all consumers should know about weight-loss supplements. All of them contain either amphetamine-like herbs, which can speed up the heart rate and nervous system, or laxatives, which can be addictive. In addition, the effectiveness of these substances diminishes over time, leading users to have to raise their dosages, sometimes to dangerous levels.
"Even if the product claims to be 'natural,' this doesn't necessarily mean that is it safe," Perkins said.
According to Melanie Brede, registered dietician at the Center for Health Promotion at Student Health, weight-loss supplements often contain caffeine or caffeine-containing herbs.
"In reality, caffeine does in fact raise heart rate for a while and could be called a thermogenic in that way, but research shows that it doesn't have a significant effect on weight loss," Brede said.
Even those supplements that have been studied generally are not effective.
"Anyone who thinks taking weight-loss pills is a magic bullet is deluding themselves," Gaesser said.
Besides being ineffective, weight-loss supplements have potentially dangerous side effects.
"Thermogenic stimulants have cardiovascular effects and raise blood pressure and heart rate," Brede said. "There is not a supplement marketed for weight loss on the market right now that I would recommend."
The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate supplements, meaning that companies do not have to prove the efficacy of their products.
"Because the FDA classifies these preparations not as drugs but as 'dietary supplements,' they are exempt from the rigorous safety testing required of conventional medicines," Perkins explained.
She added that this means the manufacturers are not required to test their products, provide warning labels or report adverse reactions.
If evidence questions the safety of a particular ingredient, however, the FDA can pull a supplement off the shelf, Brede said.
This was the case with the once-popular stimulant ephedra, which contains the Chinese herb ma huang.
"The main problem was its potentially harmful cardiovascular side effects," Gaesser said. "I don't think anyone puts that in supplements now, and if they do, it's in very small amounts since it is linked to adverse side effects."
According to Perkins, there have been hundreds of reports of consumer illness and injuries associated with the use of ephedra-containing supplements.
"The health risks were serious to the point of death, since they could cause heart attacks and strokes," Brede said.
Brede warned that though many companies now market their products as being "ephedra-free," they could still be just as harmful, since they contain ephedra replacements that may have similar risks.
Besides supplements, there are weight-loss drugs available that have been approved by the FDA.
One such drug, orlistat, known by the brand name Xenical, is a fat-blocker that prevents one-third of calories ingested from being absorbed.
"Side effects with overuse include becoming deficient in fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins D and K," Gaesser said.
Additionally, because the medication and fat are bound together in the intestines, users may experience "gas with oily discharge, oily spottings, inability to control bowel movements and oily or fatty stools," Brede said.
A second drug, sibutramine, known by the brand name Meridia, is designed to suppress appetite; however, it can have cardiovascular effects and can trigger high blood pressure, according to Gaesser.
"These drugs have very miniscule effects and the amount of weight you will lose with them is rather small and probably not worth it," Gaesser said. "My guess is that very few people would be willing to pay thousands of dollars a year for just a few pounds."
Perkins explained that for those who truly want to lose weight, only a lifestyle change, not pills, can take the weight off and keep it off.
"There is really no magic to losing weight," Gaesser said. "People who are physically active with a diet low in fat and high in fiber tend to maintain healthier weights."
Brede suggested that the only way to lose weight effectively and healthily is through diet and exercise.
"Slow and steady weight loss is best," she said.
Based on the high cost, high risk and low efficacy of weight-loss supplements, many experts agree they are simply not worth it.
"If these supplements or drugs really worked, news would spread like crazy," Gaesser said. "But it's just not happening"