More Thoughts On a Dangerous "Alli"

June 28, 2007

Noting that “Alli is just the latest in a long string of weight-loss strategies that aim to boost corporate profits more than to increase health,” Judy Norsigian and Heather Stephenson of Our Bodies Ourselves summarize the concerns and potential dangers associated with the first over-the-counter diet drug approved by the FDA.

Their commentary, published at Women’s eNews, also makes the case for government reform that could lead to healthy diet changes. But first, here’s the big question:

Who would trust a diet pill that has no proven health benefits and requires you to keep an extra pair of pants handy in case of uncontrollable diarrhea and oily discharge?

GlaxoSmithKline is betting that a lot of people will. The international pharmaceutical giant, with consumer products headquarters in Pittsburgh, has launched a $150 million marketing campaign for its new diet pill. It anticipates annual sales in the billions.

That marketing campaign, by the way, was noted by Prescription Access Litigation, which recently honored GlaxoSmithKline with a Bitter Pill Award: With Allies Like This, Who Needs Enemas?

And as for those side effects …

The orlistat in alli blocks the absorption of about one-quarter of the fat a person consumes. That fat passes right through the body, which causes negative gastrointestinal effects (such as gas and oily leakage that soils clothes) in about half of the people who took alli in clinical trials. Those negative effects may be an excellent motivator to stick to a low-fat diet, but people may compensate by eating more sugar, which isn’t healthy.

Weight is a major public health concern, but as Norsigian and Stephenson point out, alli is not part of the solution:

Its high cost and negative effects are not worth the minimal “benefit” of a small increase in short-term weight loss, and it has no proven health benefit. In fact, it decreases the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E and beta-carotene. The FDA recommends that anyone taking alli also take a daily multivitamin.

Rather than suggesting that overweight individuals pop more pills or adopt yet another dieting scheme, we need to encourage lifelong healthy eating and regular physical activity. We also need to address negative social and environmental forces that contribute to our rapidly expanding national waistline.

They go on to offer a number of suggestions to combat the trends that have led to the rise of obesity in children and adults since the 1980s. Perhaps the most important thing to remember, though, is that “health at any size is a much better goal than thinness.”

Plus: Wikipedia is a good jumping-off point for resources about the “health at any size” approach to healthy living, which prioritizes intuitive eating and physical activity over a focus on dieting and weight loss. This Mescape article, “Health at Every Size: Toward a New Paradigm of Weight and Health,” is particularly good. “What Is Size Acceptance?” includes a number of links, analysis and resources.

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