Diet pills: do you really know the dangers?

2, 4-dinitrophenol – or DNP as it’s commonly known – is yellow and odourless in capsule form. Image courtesy of Daily Mail

Words by Steph Hodgkinson

This week, 23-year-old medical student Sarah Houston died after taking diet pill DNP – which was banned in America for its dangerous side effects in 1938. The Leeds University student had been suffering from bulimia and depression for the past three years and had been receiving treatment.

DNP – also known as 2, 4-Dinitrophenol – is an extremely toxic industrial chemical which is used a pesticide. Although it’s banned for human consumption, it’s easily available over the Internet in capsule form.

The possible side effects include raised body temperatures, dehydration, exhaustion, excess sweating, irregular heart rates and heart attacks. It’s also been linked to 62 deaths worldwide. So why is it still readily available to buy in pill form?

Sarah Houston isn’t the only person in recent times to be killed from the toxic diet pill. In February, 18-year-old fitness fanatic Sarmad Alladin collapsed and died just hours after praising the fat-burning tablets on Facebook.

And in 2008, Selena Walrond, 26, died of a heart attack brought on by DNP. The pill caused a rapid rise in Selena’s heart rate and her temperature soared.

Selena’s mother was quoted in The Daily Mail as saying: “I’ll never forget her yellow fingernails and skin – the drug was sweating out of her. Selena’s life has been cruelly snatched away, all because she was desperate to lose weight. DNP is lethal. If you want to lose weight, do it the sensible way.”

Leeds University medical student Sarah Houston died after taking DNP. Image courtesy of Mirror

Leeds University medical student Sarah Houston died after taking DNP. Image courtesy of Mirror

Last year, the Food Standards Agency issued a warning to avoid taking DNP due to two deaths linked to the drug. Yet despite the warnings and fatalities, it’s still widely used amongst young people, particularly in the bodybuilding community.

Numerous bodybuilding forums participate in discussions and share their experiences of taking the drug to bulk up. The majority of the users encourage it and trivialise the potential death factor. One user on the Iron Den lists the side effects (including death) then says: “Other then [sic] that, it’s relatively safe, if you start low.”

One user on The Student Room forum said: “[sic] If your even thinking of taking DNP then you want to do your research first, if done rightly then its possible to lose around 1lbs of fat each day!!! – but done wrongly you could end up dead.”

Dietitian Sophie Leicester says: “A change of diet and an increase in exercise is the only safe and effective way to lose weight. Diet pills are no substitute for this, not to mention the life-threatening risks involved in taking these unknown chemicals.”

The fact is there is no “safe” way to take it; it’s a poisonous pesticide which isn’t worth the risk. Coroner David Hinchliff at Sarah Houston’s inquest recorded a verdict of death by misadventure.

A spokesman for the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said: “This tragic case has highlighted the potential dangers of buying slimming pills online. These pills can contain powerful ingredients such as DNP, which is not suitable for human consumption.

“We urge people not to take any slimming medicines or products bought online without consulting with a pharmacist or doctor. It simply is not worth the danger to overall health to buy and use these products as you just don’t know what is in them. Any weight loss results they offer could come with a huge risk.”

Sarah’s parents are now campaigning to ban the tablet form of the drug and prevent any further tragedies. Watch Daybreak’s interview with her parents here.

Weight loss: the safe way

  • Never take any diet pills without consulting a doctor – you don’t know what could be in them, particularly if you order them online
  • Try swapping fatty or sugary snacks for a piece of fruit or some carrot sticks with a houmous dip. Making small changes can make a big difference in the long run
  • Join a fitness class with a friend – it could be the best thing you ever do
  • If you’re strapped for cash, take a walk around the park a few times a week
  • Check your BMI (body mass index) online – often we see ourselves as ‘fat’ when we’re actually a perfectly healthy weight for our height

Have you ever taken diet pills, or would you ever? We’d like to hear your opinions and experiences on diet pills.

Read more from Steph here


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