What's in that slimming pill?

In a world where weight loss has become a constant issue for millions of people, where diet pills and drops are popped without a second thought, introspection on the products available in South Africa has become necessary.

The way in which advertisements for slimming products mislead consumers was shoved into the media spotlight in recent years. Exposure on the actuality programme Carte Blanche and harsh articles in You and Huisgenoot alerted several users to the unethical practices of manufacturers.

Fat trappers – not all it's cracked up to be

A few years ago, Carte Blanche launched an investigation into products that claim to be "fat burners", "fat absorbers" and "fat trappers". These products, which are widely advertised in local publications and on TV channels, usually contain chitosan – a compound derived from shellfish.

Many manufacturers claim that chitosan can bind fat and promote weight loss. Other popular ingredients include creatine, epinephrine, pyruvate and chromium – all claimed to be "natural" and "safe".

Although animal studies have shown that chitosan might reduce the absorption of dietary fat, no studies have been done on the effects of chitosan on dietary fat absorption in humans. The same can be said for many of the other ingredients.

"There are studies being carried out in animals and they show that in rats you can cause weight loss by using some of these ingredients. But it is very difficult to take studies in rats and extrapolate those to humans. One should never do that," Prof Nigel Crowther, an expert in the field of obesity and lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, told Carte Blanche at the time.

Many products not approved

It seems that many products, like The Enforma System, Bioslim, Cheat and Eat, and Slender C, haven't been registered with the Medicines Control Council – the local body that is supposed to give all slimming products the "yay" or "nay" before it reaches the SA consumer. Many of these products haven't been properly tested for safety and efficacy either and are making unsubstantiated claims.

As an example, the manufacturers of the popular product Bioslim misled several consumers by means of vague TV ads. Advertisements that claim that the product can magically rid you of all those extra kilos, failed to alert TV viewers to the fact that a rather rigorous calorie-restricted diet needs to accompany the intake of the product.

Taking regulatory action

Fortunately, it seems that authorities have finally decided to take action. The Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (ASA) and the Department of Health have decided to make it more difficult for manufacturers to simply make claims and advertise their products left, right and centre, Richard van Rensburg reported in Huisgenoot.

"The slimming market situation is really getting out of hand," Dr Joey Gouws of the Department of Health told Huisgenoot. "In collaboration with the ASA, we are now working on a strategy to properly regulate the marketing of slimming products."

According to Russell Coote, manager of the health department's inspectorate and law enforcement directorate, the Department is now investigating all slimming products. In an interview with Huisgenoot he notes that it is illegal to sell unregistered products that fall within the legal definition of medicine.

Slimming pills and drops – know the facts

So what are you to do? Since it may take a while before the new regulating strategy is implemented, you might have to be proactive by taking a critical look at what products contain before you buy and use it.

Dr Ingrid van Heerden, registered dietician and Health24's DietDoc, compiled an extensive list of popular over-the-counter slimming products sold in South Africa and the ingredients they contain. Click here for this comprehensive and valuable guide.

The controversy surrounding the effectiveness of slimming products indicates, once again, that there is no simple solution to weight loss. A healthy, balanced diet and a sound exercise regime still remains the only effective, long-term solution. - (Carine van Rooyen, Health24)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc

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