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Weight Loss Pills: Are They The Real Deal?

Medically reviewed by Priti Parekh, MD, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on January 8, 2023

Everyone wants to lose weight, but no one wants to put in the work. That’s why weight loss products exist, including food items labeled “low-fat,” diet versions of soft drinks, and even magic pills that claim to help you shed excess pounds without any effort on your part. These pills are marketed as “weight loss supplements”, and you can find them everywhere, from gas stations to health food stores. And they’re very popular;  in 2015, Americans shelled out a collective $2 billion on weight loss pills. But do they actually work?


You can probably guess that the pills at the gas station won’t do you any favors. But what about the ones at the health food store? Maybe you’ve heard of prescription weight loss supplements too; do those have any effect? Well, it turns out that some weight loss supplements may actually do what they’re advertised to do.

The FDA’s approved list of weight loss pills


You may be surprised to hear that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a select number of drugs (five in total) to help Americans lose weight. These drugs work best in conjunction with a doctor-approved low calorie nutrition and exercise program. Keep in mind that when you stop taking the medication, you may gain the weight back if you don’t keep up with the nutrition and exercise program.



  • Liraglutide, brand name Saxenda. This medication has been tested in multiple clinical trials and its effectiveness has been proven: Participants who took liraglutide lost weight (from 5 to 10 percent of their body weight), while those who took a placebo did not. 
  • Naltrexone-bupropion, brand name Contrave. These two medications are sold together in one pill. Similarly to lorcaserin, a combined dose of naltrexone and bupropion has been found to cause total weight loss of over 5%.
  • Orlistat, brand names Xenical and Alli. A study showed that patients who use orlistat for 6 months can lose around 12.3 pounds / 5.6 kilos. In addition, the drug has been proven to lower cholesterol and BMI.
  • Phentermine-topiramate, brand name Qsymia. Another two-in-one medication, the combination of phentermine and topiramate is probably the most effective drug to help one lose weight. A 2011 study found that patients who took a low dose of both medications for 56 weeks lost over 10% of their total body weight.

Side effects of weight-loss medications


Unfortunately, many of these medications come with side effects that some people find difficult to handle. These side effects can include insomnia, increased blood pressure, restlessness, soft stools that are hard to control, headache, nausea, constipation, and dizziness. And of course, there is always the risk of dependence, abuse, and withdrawal as with any type of medication. 


Over-the-counter weight loss pills


If you don’t have a prescription for any of the above, OTC drugs may be more appealing to you. But unfortunately, there aren’t any over-the-counter weight loss supplements that have actually been proven to do what they say. Even the ones that have shown some benefit were too good to be true. For example, ephedra, a Chinese herb, used to be sold in health food stores in the early 2000s, to promote weight loss. And it worked pretty well, until FDA scientists found out it was causing strokes, heart attacks, and seizures, and subsequently banned it. Since ephedra, there haven’t been any OTC weight loss supplements that work as advertised.


If you can’t get your hands on any prescription weight loss supplements or you can’t deal with the side effects, you can always try the traditional way to lose weight: diet and exercise. 


Written by Natan Rosenfeld

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