Health experts have warned against turning to slimming products such as pills and supplements as a shortcut to shedding the desired pounds in the wake of a court verdict finding a pharmaceutical giant guilty of manslaughter in the deaths of hundreds who are believed to have died as a result of its weight loss drug.
Dr Rosnah Ramly, a public health physician and sector head at the health ministry, said weight loss should be approached through healthy eating, adding that any other methods are not advisable.
But given the allure of quick results often promised by such products, this is not always a popular option.
“Eating healthily requires continuous commitment and effort, motivation and a supportive environment while the effects often show slow progress,” Rosnah told MalaysiaNow.
The concern about slimming products that are touted as an easy and quick way to lose weight without the need to follow a healthy diet or exercise is that some of them may contain harmful ingredients which could cause side effects.
If taken continuously, they could also lead to long-term ailments.
Last week, French pharmaceutical firm Servier was found guilty of manslaughter over hundreds of deaths caused by its diabetes and weight loss pill Mediator.
Initially intended for overweight people with diabetes, Mediator was widely prescribed to healthy individuals as an appetite suppressant.
It was on the market for more than 30 years and used by about five million people before being pulled in 2009 over fears it could cause serious heart problems.
About 500 people are thought to have died as a result of the drug, though experts say it may eventually cause as many as 2,100 deaths.
Amrahi Buang, president of the Malaysian Pharmacists Society, urged those suffering from obesity to subscribe to proper weight management programmes or treatments.
He also cautioned consumers to be mindful when buying health-related supplements or pills as some could contain substances prohibited or restricted by the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency (NPRA).
Appetite suppressants like sibutramine and phentermine, for example, are commonly found in slimming products. The drugs are known to cause side effects like headaches, constipation, heartburn, back pain and painful menstrual periods if taken without a prescription.
Amrahi said if such symptoms occur, people should consult a doctor if they do not go away or if they become worse.
“If you experience more severe side effects such as increased blood pressure, heart palpitations, restlessness, dizziness, tremors, sleep disturbance, shortness of breath or chest pain, call your doctor immediately.”
But despite these risks, and the enforcement in place to control the availability of such products, Amrahi said the problem surrounding weight loss products is “huge”.
One reason is the ready supply of these products on e-commerce and social media platforms. Those who are lacking in health literacy are easily influenced by advertisements, Amrahi said.
“There are thousands of online websites and social media platforms selling these products.”
Rosnah agreed that many are lured into buying these products through convincing marketing strategies and the ease of access on online shopping platforms.
And the glowing endorsements which often accompany them certainly help.
“These products often use testimonies from celebrities and famous spokesmen and they are also commercialised on televisions and billboards,” Rosnah told MalaysiaNow.
Amrahi warned consumers to be on the lookout for fake products and to avoid unknown online sellers. His advice is to always shop from community pharmacies.
“Make sure the product is registered under the NPRA for quality, safety, and efficacy.”
Where there is doubt, he said help or treatment should be sought from qualified pharmacists and doctors.
Rosnah also cautioned people against falling for tall claims and testimonies.
“These slimming products may be adulterated with slimming medications such as sibutramine or phentermine,” she said.