Chemicals And Pills For Weight Control

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Vital Information

In this series of articles, I’ve been talking about diets and dieting. We’ve looked at plans and paraphernalia, machines, food combination diets, calorie counting, meals in cans, and weight loss clubs. The easy answer to losing weight continues to evade discovery.

From Snake Oil And Beyond

Before about 110 years ago, there were nostrums, concoctions, and patent medicines sold by traveling salesmen in high hats and shiny black suits, medicines that were used for treating all kinds of ailments, including obesity. Then, with the beginning of the use of thyroid hormones in an attempt to increase the metabolism of overweight people, drug treatment for obesity moved into what might be referred to as the mainstream of medicine, in that actual doctors were making the recommendation. But when we say this, we also need to face the fact that at that time there was really nothing that could be called mainstreammedicine. Medical practitioners were more like skilled tradesmen and many were only marginally educated. Treatment was risky at best. The beginnings of professional attempts to treat obesity with medicines coincided with the beginnings of the development of a true profession of medicine.

“Modern” Medicine And Dieting

By the 1930s and 1940s, as the respectability of the medical profession was improving, more and more chemicals were being recommended as weight control agents. Some of these were plants that, today, we would call herbs. One example was kelp.

Kelp is a source of iodine which is needed by the body in the manufacturing of thyroid hormones. Kelp was (and still is, in some circles) thought to help with obesity because it could stimulate thyroid hormone production. However, it didn’t do much to help the battle of the bulge. In 1921, the American Medical Association listed kelp, along with herbs called bladderwrack and pokeberry, in its list of “Nostrums and Quackery,” while allowing thyroid hormone pills to be given to patients for 80 years, despite evidence of blood salt disturbances, heart rhythm problems, and increased bone calcium loss, as I pointed out last time.

Other chemicals used in an attempt to control weight were old or new patent medicines. Some were medicines used for other conditions, such as the heart medicine digitalis, and the 1930s drug, dextroamphetamine, which was used to treat narcolepsy (a condition characterized by an uncontrolled desire to sleep). Other weight control agents tried were chemicals from industry, such as dinitrophenol, aninsecticide which was prescribed to more than 100,000 people for weight control before it was taken off the market in 1938.

During the 1950s and 1960s, other hormones such as HCG, and appetite suppressants were used widely. Three billion Dexedrine tablets were taken, mostly by women, before it was discovered that long-term use of that drug was related to heart damage, strokes, kidney failure, and psychosis.

Diet Pills

Then someone made the brilliant marketing discovery that changed the course of obesity treatment forever. Drugs such as amphetamines, barbiturates, diuretics, laxatives, hormones, appetite suppressants, mood changing drugs, and anything else even remotely connected, could be mixed and matched, and grouped together in the public’s consciousness. These drugs might or might not have any real effect on obesity, and one drug that might cause the pill-taker to ‘zig’ could be paired with another drug that caused the pill-taker to ‘zag.’ The individual drugs were less important than the whole package. The important thing was to call them collectively, Diet Pills.

One drug company that provided these drugs went so far as to explain to doctors the best way to participate in the diet pill phenomenon. Doctors were told in a special pamphlet that they should prescribe plenty of pills, not recommend any diet programs or exercise plans, and that they should collect payment from patients in cash, up front. This business plan was so successful that by 1968, the US Food and Drug Administration was reporting that there were at least 7,000 “fat doctors” in the United States, many with multiple offices. And, the FDA reported, those doctors were giving their patients more than two billion diet pills each year! It had become a national issue.

“Fat Doctors”

In an effort to see how serious the problem really was, the then-popular news magazine, Life, decided to send out an investigative reporter to find out about doctors whose entire medical practice consisted of treating overweight patients. The Life Magazine reporter was described as five foot, six inches tall and weighing 125 pounds, yet she was given diet pills by every single one of the ten doctors she visited! This was an average of nearly 150 diet pills from each doctor.

Diet pills of various kinds continue to be used widely, and new ones are anticipated by the public, hoping for a panacea. In my next article, I’ll talk more about herbal remedies, about Fen-Phen, and about those chemicals that are referred to as The Stack.


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