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Consumers flock to alternative diet aids

Gordon November 3, 1997
Web posted at: 3:47 p.m. EST (2047 GMT)

From Correspondent Linda Ciampa

ATLANTA (CNN) -- With two of the nation's most popular diet drugs, Redux and the combination drug Fen-Phen, off the shelves, determined dieters are turning to over-the-counter alternatives in droves.

Sales of one such dietary supplement, Phen-Cal, have soared. Diane Gordon, a former Redux user, now takes Phen-Cal as a weight loss aid. She lost weight on Redux, but she also experienced side effects.

"My teen-agers -- one is 18, one is 15 -- they both were very against me being on it. They said I couldn't remember when to take them places," she said.


So, she stopped taking Redux last winter. Recently she began using the non-prescription Phen-Cal, which she says has the effect of taking away her appetite.

Phen-Cal is a combination of amino acids that its makers say wards off cravings and the impulse to binge on carbohydrates. Amino acids occur naturally in foods, especially those high in protein.

Kenneth Blum of the University of North Texas participated in a study of the drug. "What we're saying here is you can lose weight, and in the studies that we've performed, it was equivalent to the Fen-Phen," he said. "Now, it may happen a little slower, 'cause in a sense, we're not hammering the head. We're doing it naturally."

Blum claims overweight people crave food for the same reason an addict craves drugs -- because they have unbalanced levels of dopamine, a chemical that sends the brain signals of euphoria or satisfaction.

For dieters, the amino acids in Phen-Cal are supposed to work like a dose of sugar without the calories.

"Sugar causes dopamine to be activated in the brain just like alcohol, just like nicotine, just like marijuana, just like gambling, all these things do it the same way," Blum said.

But most obesity experts don't believe addiction leads to obesity. They say supplements of amino acids will do nothing to speed up weight loss.

"It is not natural to take amino acids. We take food with protein, which has amino acids in it, but there has never been a time in the history of man that they've consumed amino acids as a form of diet or health," said Dr. George Blackburn of Harvard University.

The American Dietetic Association's Cathy Kapcia also emphasizes the drug's unknown character. "While you do get amino acids in food, you get a mixture of nutrients, and by selectively using only one or two, we don't know what that does," she said.

Still, Diane Gordon says she is not worried. In the three weeks she's been on Phen-Cal, she says she has lost almost 10 pounds without any side effects -- so far.

Redux, known chemically as dexfenfluramine, and Pondimin, also known as fenfluramine, were recalled in September after being linked to serious heart damage.

Fenfluramine is half of the popular diet drug combination called Fen-Phen.


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