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Miracle diet pills?

When it comes to weight loss, there’s no such thing as a magic pill—though some diet aids imply just that with vows of miraculous weight loss.

But nonprescription diet pills aren’t subjected to the same testing and standards as prescription drugs and other over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, so claims of dramatic weight loss are usually just empty promises. Many OTC diet pills also contain a cocktail of ingredients in varying amounts, so you run the risk of taking something that causes an allergic reaction or an interaction with a prescription medication. A healthy diet and regular exercise are the tried-and-true methods of losing extra pounds and keeping them off—though admittedly that’s a lot harder than taking a pill.

No doubt, diet pills and their promises can still be tempting. But before you give in, read on about these heavily advertised products—and bear in mind that many haven’t been proven safe or effective, and it’s unknown how they affect you long term.

Alli is a reduced-strength, OTC version of the prescription obesity drug orlistat (brand name Xenical). FDA-approved, it promotes weight loss by decreasing fat absorption in the intestines. Alli is meant to be used in conjunction with a low-fat and reduced-calorie diet, along with regular exercise, so you still have to do your part. Also, weight loss is modest—just a few more pounds a year than you’d lose with diet and exercise alone. Side effects include gas and oily anal discharge.

Hoodia is an ingredient derived from a cactus, and makers of hoodia supplements claim it will reduce your hunger—much like it supposedly did for African natives who ate it to reduce hunger during long hunts. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence it can suppress hunger or result in weight loss.

Ephedra boosts metabolism. The FDA banned weight-loss products containing ephedra after reports of insomnia, high blood pressure, heart attacks and death—though you can still find products containing the ingredient on the Internet. The supplement country mallow (heartleaf) contains ephedra and should also be avoided.

Bitter orange (Citrus aurantium) is found in many products labeled “ephedra-free” and is a natural source of the ephedra-like ingredient synephrine. Bitter orange can cause many of the same problems ephedra does, including heart arrhythmias and high blood pressure. If you have a history of heart problems, avoid bitter orange. The weight-loss drug Lipovarin contains synephrine.

Green tea extract claims to increase your calorie and fat metabolism and decrease your appetite. However, there’s limited evidence to support these claims. This extract may also contain large amounts of caffeine and cause gastrointestinal upsets.

Other diet-aid ingredients such as chromium, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and guar gum are generally considered safe, but how effective they are at helping you lose weight is questionable.

Before taking any supplement, talk with your healthcare provider.