By Chioma Obinna
African women, particularly Nigerian women had always longed to be big, that is, fat. Mostly for married women, being fat was seen as a sign of affluence on the part of their husbands. The bid to achieve this so-called status then in the country made so many husbands to work so hard such that their wives will be the envy of others.
But, today, things are different. Apart from chronic health conditions which force many to go on diet, women who even have less than 28 Body Mass Index, BMI, in Nigeria are being advised to lose weight by every means possible. The craving to be slim has, however, caused damages to many women unknowingly. Some have even lost their lives in the process.
Although it is natural for anyone trying to lose weight to want to lose it very quickly, it can take time and effort; unfortunately, many people are impatient to get into shape and want a quick-fix diet. Slimming pills appear to be taking over the gradual and healthy weight loss programme as recommended by medical experts. The order of the day is now goodbye to sweaty sessions in the gym and lifestyle modification. But how safe are these weight loss supplements said to be natural and plant-based? Sunday Vanguard x-rays the pros and cons of the products.
Today, you cannot escape unsolicited advertisements on slimming pills and teas. They are everywhere. On your facebook, twitter, name it, they pop up. The messages are clearly written, ‘It is pure natural’, ‘Lose weight in 10 days’, ‘This can burn your fat fast’. They will say the ingredients are plant-based green tea extract, bitter orange, raspberry ketones and harmless. Some of the products have been widely advertised as safe and miraculous. Medical experts, however, say the pills have dangerous consequence.
According to the World Health Organisation, WHO, an unhealthy diet is one of the major risk factors for a range of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes and other conditions linked to obesity. However, specific recommendations for a healthy diet include eating more fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and grains; cutting down on salt, sugar and fats. It is also advisable to choose unsaturated fats, instead of saturated fats and towards the elimination of trans-fatty acids.
Evidence abounds that people who lose weight gradually and steadily like 1 to 2 pounds per week are more successful at keeping weight off. Health watchers are worried that healthy weight loss is not just about a diet or programme but also about on-going lifestyle that includes long-term changes in daily eating and exercise habits.
Unfortunately, due to impatience, many people go for slimming pills and teas. There are stories about people who have died of the slimming pills and teas. In 2013, a Delta State-based Nollywood location manager reportedly died after a brief illness which was believed to have been aggravated by the slimming tea he took.
He was said to have died after he drank the tea. Reports said he complained of weakness and was taken to hospital but he did not respond to treatment.
Also in 2014, the autopsy carried out on one Betty Kums who had died linked the death to the side effects of a slimming tea.
Meanwhile, some victims are alive to tell their stories. When Ngozi Onyekwu’s doctors counselled her about the implication of her abnormal weight which was almost about 130 kilogrammes (kg) then, she became agitated.
It became an emergency for her. She could no longer rely on the recommended diets and exercise regimen. She went for slimming pills.
“I was in my early 40s, about 51/2 feet 10 inches tall and weighing about 130kg. Living a normal life was a problem for me. I was totally obese. Friends were pressuring me to try the pills. It could be embarrassing when people stare at you because of your weight. I decided to try one without prescription. Each time I took the pills, my appetite for food will cease”, she narrated.
“Though I started shedding weight within two weeks of treatment, I developed some complications, ranging from constant headache to insomnia and a higher level of blood pressure.
“I took it for three weeks before things went from bad to worse. I lost my composure. It was as if I was going to pass out. I became restless. I knew something was wrong. My already elevated blood pressure got worse. It was over 150; I had never experienced that in my life. I opened up to a friend who encouraged me to throw the pills away”.
Ngozi was forced to seek the services of a dietician who has been able to bring her weight down to 90 kilogrammes through a change in her diet, more exercise and a more active life.
According to medical experts, some diet pills may cause stroke and panic attacks. And worrisome is the fact that it is easy to buy the pills online and without a doctor’s prescription.
Ordinarily, the pills should be prescribed to those with a BMI of 28 and above, or those who have health problems associated with weight and for a short-term period. In essence, diet pills should only be used under medical supervision.
But although, it is illegal to sell prescription drugs without a prescription in Nigeria, slimming pills are sold without prescription even online. The pills can be addictive and therefore difficult to withdraw from. They may well suppress your appetite, but studies have shown that the chemicals in the diet drugs, which act like adrenalin by increasing the heart rate, can also affect your blood pressure, give you mood swings, cause tremors, severe headaches and heart attack or stroke.
In a chat with Sunday Vanguard, Assistant Director of Dietetics, Obafemi Awolowo University Teaching Hospital, Ile Ife, Osun State, Dr Ogbonna Obinna, said there is no benefit in taking slimming pills because they pose grave danger in the long run to users.
Obinna listed the side effects of using slimming pills to include high blood pressure, restlessness, fast heart beats, dizziness, psychological distress and hormonal distortion.
According to him, slimming pills bring nothing but pains in the end.
“Nature determines our morphological expression (i.e. our body size). If you inherited a large body frame, the best you can do is to watch what you eat”, the expert said.
“There is no gain in taking slimming pills, because it is like solving one problem and creating more serious problems at the end. “One of the side effect of the pills is elevated blood pressure which if not controlled can lead to acute/chronic renal failure, that is, your kidneys may stop functioning. The victim may either struggle for survival by dialysis or total kidney transplant and these are very expensive. It is like using the popular pidgin axiom in Nigeria to explain, ‘Iyanga dey sleep trouble dey wake am’.”
He further advised that carrying excess weight is not the best. “Your body weight and frame should synchronize. If this is not so, you may either be overweight or obese with its health consequences.”
According to him, there’s no magic bullet for losing weight as the most effective way to lose weight and keep it up is through lifestyle changes. “Eat a healthy low-calorie diet with lots of fruits and vegetables and be physically active”, he advised.
“Lifestyle and diet modifications are the answer and not necessarily taking slimming pills that you get addicted to. There is need for you to change your sedentary activities and become more active based on advice from your physiotherapist
“There is need for you to change or modify your dietary pattern by cutting down on your carbohydrates intake especially refined foods and simple sugars, pastries etc with professional counsel from a dietician.”
Also speaking, a Consultant Surgeon and Medical Director of Jeokem Hospital, Lagos, Dr Emmanuel Enabulele, warned against the use of quick-fix weight loss products, adding that there are chances of rebound obesity when people use slimming pills.
Enabulele, who is also the Chairman, Board of Trustees, Health Writers Association of Nigeria, HEWAN, described the pills as death trap when used wrongly.
According to him, the pills could make one slim between10 and 20 days but cause a lot of damages to the health system.
“It is risky to take these products; one may also suffer nutritional deficiency. I also advise against taking slimming tablets and teas, because they all contain harmful materials. They contain preservatives which can be harmful to the system”, he said.
“Another reason I advise people against using slimming drugs is because many of the products contain nutrients that are designed to make one feel full. It gives one false satisfaction. By the time one stops taking the product, the person may either dry up or blow up his body structure because you cannot take the product for life.”
Noting that the best remedy for weight loss is healthy eating pattern, he added that many people eat anything that is readily available.
“One of the benefits of losing weight through diet and exercise is that you won’t feel sick as your normal physiology would not be altered.
“Secondly, your liver would not be challenged from the metabolism or breakdown of pills. It saves you headaches. There are less chances of rebound obesity as dieting could be habit forming and sustainable.
“Many diseases we battle with could have been stopped right from the mouth. The food we eat goes a long way in determining our health status
“In as much as I advocate for constant exercise, embracing diet plans comes before exercise. Many people have the mind-set of going through excessive exercise to lose weight.
“This has always proved to be the secondary aspect of weight loss after dieting. You will get nowhere in losing weight if you exercise often and yet continue having high calorie intake. You must embrace the attitude of good diet, and to achieve that takes discipline.”
“Weight loss could be achieved by cutting down on carbohydrate. If you want to lose weight you should start by avoiding sugar and starch (like bread). There is infinite number of weight-loss diets based on eating fewer carbohydrates. Dozens of modern scientific studies have proven that low carbohydrate is the most effective way to lose weight.”
The Permanent Secretary, Lagos State Ministry of Health, Dr.Modele Osunkiyesi, echoed the experts perspectives, saying losing weight through diets and exercise was natural and sustainable.
Osunkiyesi said there are no systemic complications attached and no likelihood of rebound and side effects.