Concerns abound over unregulated diet pills in ME

Gulf women’s pursuit of ‘perfect body’ comes with a hefty price.

By THE MEDIA LINE
June 8, 2010 21:26
An Arab woman.

gulf arab woman 311. (photo credit: The Media Line)

 
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Many Arabs in the Gulf are now overweight after oil wealth has fueled a sedentary lifestyle and a rise in consumption of unhealthy foods.

In Saudi Arabia, even the armed forces are sagging, leading to Deputy Defense Minister Khalid Bin Sultan recently complaining that almost 70 percent of the soldiers are overweight.

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As a result, people are seeking out dangerous and unhealthy solutions in the form of weight-loss drugs.

Diet pills have become all the rage throughout the Middle East, but physicians are warning against overuse, lack of supervision and harmful side effects.

In Egyptian pharmacies, weight-loss pills are sold more than medication for chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure, the London-based news site Elaph reported.

Ahmad Diab, a pharmacist in Cairo told Elaph that the increased consumption of slimming pills reflected a “thin craze” among Egyptian women of all ages, who want to be slender like famous movie stars and models.

These drugs usually include appetite suppressors, fat burners or fat absorption inhibitors.



The side effects range from swelling in the stomach, anemia and low calcium levels to inflammation, diarrhea and colon problems. Weight-loss drugs with hormones can also cause heart palpitations and nervous disorders.

However, warnings against the harmful side effects have not stopped the thriving industry of fat clinics and ‘slimming medications’ for women, which promise miraculous transformation into a slender beauty queen, using slogans like: “No fatigue, no strain, no side effects – your slim figure is in your own hands,” or “There is no such thing as an ugly woman, only a woman who does not know how to use her beauty.”

Yasmine Rashidi, a Cairo-based writer and cultural critic, says women choose drugs over exercise or diets because they provide a quick fix.

“In a culture like this one, where social gatherings are a core part of life, and where those gatherings all revolve around food, weight-loss medications take on added appeal,” she told The Media Line.

“As a culture, beauty has historically been important to us – look at Cleopatra, for example – but our ideals for beauty have now become much more aligned with those of the West, so skinny is the current standard,” she explained.

“Unlike in America, for example, where health-foods are readily available, and where exercise is a part of the culture and possibly even trendy, it’s not the case here, so weight-loss pills that promise miracles are obviously very appealing. We’re not yet on the organic/detox wavelength here – it’s still just about being ‘thin’ – so the quickest route to that people will take.”

“Ultimately,” she continued, “it’s about belonging and acceptance. I think it’s definitely a sociological trend. I’m sure there are some cases of people taking such pills to fight obesity, but for the most part it’s very much about wanting to be slim – wanting to fit the current trend of beauty and fashion.”

Dr. Madiha El Safty, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, said the fad is in line with global trends.

“People are losing weight and it’s fashionable, especially among the younger generation,” she told The Media Line.

Strangely enough, the ideal figure in Egypt is still rounded.

“In Egypt, we always had our own curvy body build. Curves are the preferred type by men, and women are keen to please men,” El Safty said. “Very thin is considered unhealthy because it’s the traditional perception that you’re not properly fed.”

On the other end of the spectrum, being fat, she explained, is more common among the lower classes, where diets are unhealthy and are rich in carbohydrates. The upper classes, however, try to stay slim, which is more in vogue.

Still, problems related to weight-loss drugs exist across the region.

In Iraq, health experts say diet pills have led to cancer, paralysis and even death. The weight-loss drug fad is also fueling conspiracy theories that these drugs are imported to Iraq by imperial powers wishing to harm the Iraqi people by spreading disease.

In most of these countries, there is little supervision, if at all, of the source, safety and effectiveness of these pills, and little knowledge about their side effects.

In Iraq, women are the main consumers of weight-loss drugs and are willing to dish out more money for them, one pharmacist said.

The drugs can be purchased from hairdressers, barbershops and market stalls. Few of these vendors can provide any information about the product they are selling.

“All I know is that people want it,” one Iraqi vendor said.

In Lebanon, new weight-loss products are appearing on the market all the time. Some of them are registered with the Ministry of Health and have undergone laboratory tests, while others are unregistered, and are labeled as nutrients or vitamins.

The main market in Lebanon is among women and young girls who are unaware about the associated health concerns and are easily swayed by advertisements, especially in the spring before swim season begins.

In Jordan, women are taking weight-loss drugs despite health warnings that it can cause fertility problems, sleeping disorders, swelling, pain, vomiting and depression.

There too, like in Iraq, the drugs are widely available and can be purchased outside of pharmacies at gyms and beauty parlors.

Most of the women who take these pills have high-powered jobs and have trouble finding spare time to exercise regularly or prepare and eat nutritious meals regularly. Some of the drugs are smuggled into the country illegally and there are few scientific studies that can make clear to the public their negative side effects.

Sharoud Al-Jundi Matthis, program manager with the Qatar Diabetes Association confirmed that the weight-loss drug craze in the region was mostly triggered by an increase in obesity levels.

“The Middle East is seeing an incredible increase in obesity due to urbanization and changing of lifestyle,” Matthis told The Media Line. “Changing a lifestyle is easier said than done, which gives rise to ‘quick fixes’ such as slimming pills. The word-of-mouth in the Middle East carries an enormous weight so people tell each other about pills they, their family members, their neighbors, their ‘second cousin once removed’ have taken and it worked wonders, which exacerbates the problem.”

In many Middle Eastern countries slimming pills are loosely regulated, giving rise to a vast market of unregulated and sometimes dangerous pharmaceuticals.

“There are no, or very few, regulating agencies controlling these pills,” Matthis said. “As in the West, most are labeled ‘herbal’ or actually sold under the table with hardly any mechanisms of control present. The biggest problem with them is the lack of control. There are some that are called slimming pills with no ingredients listed, which is very dangerous. Most are not controlled, so the active ingredients are not measured and tested, and the amount in the tablet is not to be trusted. Most varieties are appetite suppressants which can cause lots of problems, especially for people with [high] blood pressure, or heart problems, which many obese people have. It raises blood pressure, causes heart palpitations and affects sleep patterns.”

Rashidi agreed that this was also a problem in Egypt.

“There are all sorts of pills you can get here that you could never get in the US, and people casually buy them over the counter and use them in their own way, not following instructions, not checking first if they are fit to take them,” Rashidi said.

“It’s not just the traditional ‘diet pills,’” she added. “A few years ago, at the time when ephedrine-based Xenadrine had been banned or pulled from the market in the US, its usage was widespread here. You could buy it at any pharmacy, and young girls were taking it at their leisure, not as an exercise or weight-training supplement. The effect of that is very dangerous. All the regular diet pills are also freely available and widely promoted; I know lots of women who take them on a whim, rather than as a thought-out supplement to a healthy eating program. Beyond just diet pills, access to medication here is very fluid. ‘Prescription’ means very little in this context.”

In the Middle East people generally do not have sufficient information about the health concerns associated with these pills, she concluded.

“The notion of ‘herbal’ as safe is very prevalent in the Middle East. People’s parents and grandparents may have only taken herbal medication. Some know the dangerous side effects, but will do it anyway. Overall, there is some, but not enough awareness about the dangerous side effects.”

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