Growing up with a fixed bedtime on school nights, perhaps one of my favorite childhood pastimes was staying up into the wee hours of each weekend morning watching television. It didn’t matter what was on—I could usually chase down something interesting enough to hold me over until my inevitable face-crash into the couch cushion.
Many of those late night programs are a blur, though I do remember some of the absurd commercials that came on during those hours—sex talk hotlines, local car dealerships and appliance stores, looping infomercials. One such commercial that piques a particular memory was for Hydroxycut, a weight loss pill essentially guaranteeing results by getting rid of “stubborn fat.” It resonated deeply with me, both because of its consistent repetition and the appeal of a magic weight loss pill to anyone, especially an impressionable mind, growing up overweight.
Around three or four years later I began lifting weights and, like most adolescents, grew extremely aware of my physical image. I had always been chubby, but now that I was working my body to build muscle, I wondered why I couldn’t lose my baby fat too. I talked to my parents about Hydroxycut, the pill I’d seen on those late, pizza-filled weekend nights, and asked if they’d allow me to take it (and ultimately order it for me—callers must be 18 years or older).
Begrudgingly they obliged, and within a week I was taking the supplement and could feel the difference in my workouts. I had more energy during and afterwards, and felt like I could lift more than I ever had (some of this, surely, was placebo). However, I started losing a bit of weight, the fat that the commercials so keenly referred to as “stubborn” around my belly and hips. It was just a few pounds, but as a growing preteen who’d never felt great about himself physically, it was all the difference.
I continued taking the pills until news broke about Hydroxycut’s recall. It was deemed the root cause of some liver poisoning cases and other side effects that stemmed from ephedra, a dietary supplement (and Hydroxycut ingredient) that is designed to “stimulate the central nervous system, increase thermogenesis, and reduce appetite.” A study of ephedra’s efficacy showed “modest short-term weight loss” results, but concluded that using it with caffeine (another Hydroxycut ingredient) was “associated with increased risk of psychiatric, autonomic, or gastrointestinal symptoms, and heart palpitations.” There were even instances of death. Ephedra (and supplements containing it) was banned by the Food and Drug Administration in 2004.
In the short time that I took the pills, I hadn’t felt any of the adverse side effects mentioned, though I was well below the suggested age for actually taking the supplement. Nevertheless, I was disappointed and decided it would be for the best if I put them down for good (okay, my parents took them away). I hadn’t developed a dependency, but I did notice my workouts had lost the jolt that Hydroxycut—specifically the ephedra-caffeine combo—had brought to them.
Hydroxycut eventually reentered the market with a new formula, and although there are no longer supplements containing ephedra, many weight loss pills with caffeine and other stimulants populate shelves and warehouses across the country. They provide a little extra boost that some of us need help with and can’t reach on their own, but much like ephedra, can produce unwanted side effects and dependency—all for what appear to be quite short term results.
I’m no consumer advocate (hell, I was taking these things pre-recall at 12 years old), but it’s important to remember the type of effects these weight loss supplements, specifically those with stimulants, can have. If there’s any risk of liver or heart disease, it’s a no for me and many others—but until someone uncovers that magical diet pill with no side effects and perfect results, people will continue looking for that boost. Ingest carefully.