Lisa Salmon finds out why you should be wary of unregulated weight loss aids.
After the indulgence of Christmas, many of us want to shed the pounds we've gained, but are sadly lacking the willpower needed to hit the gym and cut out fatty foods.
That's perhaps why many people turn to slimming pills as a quick and easy way to shift their festive weight. It's a growing industry, and a recent government survey found one-third of people trying to lose weight have tried weight loss capsules purchased online.
It might sound like the ideal quick fix, but taking substances bought through unregulated websites can be a dangerous business according to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). It warns that diet pills purchased online may potentially contain withdrawn pharmaceutical ingredients, which can cause nasty side effects and sometimes even heart attacks and death.
Now the MHRA is running a new campaign, under the hashtag #FakeMeds, to encourage dieters to use safe, legitimate and appropriate weight loss aids, including calorie-controlled diets and exercise, slimming clubs and prescribed weight loss medication.
Why do people turn to weight loss pills?
The only clinically proven, safe and effective weight loss drug is called Orlistat (also known as Xenical or Alli). It is available on prescription or over-the-counter in the UK.
Orlistat is a 'fat binder' that stops fat being absorbed by the body, but it's only prescribed and sold to clinically obese people on a low-fat diet - not those who just need to lose a few pounds.
Online vendors offer a discreet way for people who don't need to lose huge amounts of weight to purchase alternatives to Orlistat, without having to consult a medical professional.
In a poll of 1,805 people, conducted by the MHRA and Slimming World, three quarters of slimmers (77%) said that they bought slimming pills after being enticed by promises of rapid weight loss. More than half were attracted to being able to order discreetly (57%), while 44% ordered online because they didn't want to speak to a GP or pharmacist.
The side effects are unpleasant
The unregulated nature of online slimming pills means they can have side effects that aren't labelled on the packaging. The MHRA survey found 63% of people who had taken slimming pills bought online experienced diarrhoea, bleeding, blurred vision and heart problems.
Taking these pills could be fatal
The MHRA warns the side-effects of taking slimming pills bought online can be far worse than just unpleasant - they could be fatal.
More than half of all medicines bought online are fake, and since 2013 the MHRA has seized nearly £4 million worth of fake weight-loss pills, which can cost anything from £30-£60 a bottle.
MHRA senior policy manager Lynda Scammell, said: "Quick fixes for losing weight may have serious health consequences in the short or long term, including organ failure and death.
"It's essential you know what you're buying online and what the risks are. If you don't, your weight could end up being the least of your worries."
"Side-effects made me stop taking online slimming pills"
Sarah-Jayne Walker became "obsessed" with slimming pills bought online, before quitting them and eventually losing two stone through sensible dieting.
She told the MHRA: "I used to spend hours searching the web for what I thought were the right diet pills, ones that said they'd work straight away and that had the best reviews. My mind became consumed with those pills.
"However, after suffering heart palpitations, IBS, sickness, light-headedness and even fainting, I knew I had to get a grip and sort my mind out."
She joined a slimming club instead, and admits: "I don't have to punish myself or feel guilty for eating any more and I've lost just over two stone. I can't tell you how proud I feel of myself."
How can I buy slimming pills safely?
The MHRA warns against buying slimming pills online and suggests you speak to your doctor about safe weight loss options instead.
If you are buying any kind of pharmaceuticals online, you should always check that the seller is registered by using the MHRA online checking system #FakeMeds . Check if the website displays the EU Common Logo too, which vouches for the authenticity of the websites and guarantees the safety of the products.
If you think you've bought fake medical products, tell the MHRA through the #FakeMeds website.
Quick fixes are risky
Slimming pills may seem like an appealing option, but the best way to lose weight is to make healthy changes to your diet and lifestyle.
Jenny Caven, Slimming World's head of external affairs, says: "It's easy to see how quick-fix promises made by the sellers of online slimming pills could seem tempting to people who are desperately struggling with their weight.
"Buying slimming pills online can be incredibly risky. The sellers are often unregulated, and taking the pills puts people at risk of dangerous side-effects.
"Learning to make changes to the way you shop, cook and eat, and getting support to develop new healthy habits really is the best way to lose weight. Not only is it safer, it's also far more satisfying."
If you're still struggling to lose weight, see your GP
As many of us know, losing weight - and keeping it off - can be a tricky task. If you've made healthy changes to your lifestyle but are still concerned about your weight, the best thing to do is speak to your GP.
"There are a number of prescribed medicines available from your GP for weight loss," says the NHS. "There are also other unprescribed, unlicensed weight loss products available on the market which may contain ingredients that are harmful to health."
"If you are concerned about your weight, consult your GP or another healthcare professional."