We have been talking in the previous half dozen or so articles about diets and dieting. We’ve looked at plans and paraphernalia, machines and food combination diets, calorie counting and meals in cans. Then came weight loss clubs.
Knowing how Alcoholics Anonymous members help each other, Esther Manz organized the first diet support group. Her club, called TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly), met weekly, and members helped one another keep on the straight and narrow. Manz had no products or gimmicks, so each member followed whatever straight and narrow plan she preferred. TOPS clubs spread all over the country, and by the late 1950s they were reporting that 60,000 members were losing an average of 15 pounds a year. As late as 1992 there were still TOPS groups meeting regularly, and there may still be groups active today.
‘Weight Watchers’ Begins
Then in 1963 Jean Nidetch started Weight Watchers. She had received a diet plan from the New York City Department of Health’s obesity clinic two years earlier, and had successfully lost weight following it. Nidetch used that diet as the basis of her system, and instructed all members to follow the same diet, measuring so many ounces of foods from group A, from group B, and from group C.
Weight Watchers was followed in 1965 by Diet Workshop, in 1966 by Why Weight, in 1968 by Weight Losers Institute, in 1971 by Diet Center and Nutri-System, and in 1983 by Jenny Craig. Several of these were enormously successful, selling foods, cookbooks, memberships, and related items. Indeed, Weight Watchers was making $160,000 by 1964 and $8 million by 1970. The multinational corporation Heinz Foods bought the company in about 1980, and was said to be earning $1 billion by 1996. But, those successes aside, nothing has been used and misused more than chemicals and drugs.
Early Attempts Using Chemicals
As I mentioned in a previous article, the sad history of drug treatment for obesity started over a hundred years ago in about 1893, when thyroid hormone was recommended as a weight loss agent. Thyroid hormone was believed to be therapeutic because it was generally believed that heavy people have lower metabolism, even if blood testing didn’t show low levels of thyroid. Patients were treated with very high doses of thyroid, but eventually use of the drug was stopped because evidence surfaced that it was causing blood salt disturbances, heart rhythm problems, and increased bone calcium loss.
But “eventually” sometimes takes a long time. Thyroid was still being given overweight people as late as 1978, when the Food and Drug Administration at long last issued a warning against the use of thyroid preparations for the treatment of obesity unless the patient actually tested low for thyroid hormone. For close to 80 years, the drug was misused.
After World War I, some observers noted that obese men who had worked in ammunition factories using a chemical called dinitrophenol (di-nitro-FEE-nall) lost weight. Not knowing what else to do to help overweight patients, physicians started to prescribe it in about 1933. The chemical causes increased metabolic activity in the bodies of the users, and (almost as a side effect) weight loss. By 1935, over 100,000 people had taken it, but it was withdrawn as a dangerous substance by 1938 after reports of poisoning and deaths.
However, as we have seen with so many other bad weight loss ideas, they rise again. Dinitrophenol reappeared in 1987 under the trade name Mitcal, and was used by a doctor in Texas to treat some 14,000 wealthy, overweight people willing to pay as much as $1,000 per treatment, earning him some $10 million. Dinitrophenol is currently used as a wood preservative, insecticide, and herbicide (weed killer).
Heart Medicines And More Hormones For Obesity
The use of heart medicines to treat overweight was popular for a long while, beginning about 1940. Drugs such as digitalis were used in amounts that caused the patient to be nauseated, and therefore not interested in eating. Additionally, digitalis was useful in that it counteracted the increased heart rate that was produced by the huge doses of unnecessary thyroid hormone also being given to the patient.
A drug similar to digitalis was actually compounded with thyroid in a product known as eo-Barine. Neo-Barine was advertised as being a “safe, dependable weight-reducing agent.” Unfortunately, it was shown to be toxic to the heart muscle. This did not stop it from being prescribed for at least 25 years before being taken off the market.
In about 1957 some doctors began experimenting on their overweight patients with a hormone called HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin). This hormone was being used to treat boys with a disease called Froehlich’s Syndrome, which has as one of its characteristics increased hip and buttock fatty deposits. The hormone reduced the abnormal fat in the boys with the disease, but it didn’t work to reduce obesity in women without the condition. Nonetheless, it was touted to produce weight loss beyond that resulting from dieting, a more attractive or normal distribution of fat, and decreased the hunger and discomfort associated with dieting. It didn’t work, but it was used for an extended period of time.
Appetite suppressants began to be widely used in the 1960s. The drug phenylpropanolamine (fee-nil-pro-pan-ALA-mean), usually referred to as PPA, appeared in such over-the-counter pills as Dexatrim, Acutrim, Thinz, and Appedrine. Some of these products (and others like them) are being sold as we speak, though I don’t know if PPA is still the active ingredient.
And, also, since the 1960s, PPA and similar drugs have been suspected of causing a very serious, often-fatal, disease called pulmonary hypertension. Although the first evidence of problems with these drugs arose in the 1960s, the FDA didn’t begin investigations until 1972. But even then, no action was taken.
Next time, we’ll continue talking about the disturbing history of drugs and chemicals used to treat overweight. You won’t want to miss it any of it.