Diet Drug Approval Sparks Concern

Elise Becker knew she had a problem when at 15 years old, she weighed a mere 82 pounds.

Every day, Becker would take nearly 25 diet pills or diuretics.

"I'd wake up and take three diet pills," she said. "Every hour I'd take three more."

"I spent all my money, all my allowance, on the pills. I had an abuse problem."

From her own experience, Becker found getting her hands on the pills "super easy." She got the impression that those around her thought it was fine. She was a young woman concerned about her weight.

When it comes to Alli, she thinks it will be the same.

"Of course it will be abused," she said. "It's like a miracle drug, an easy way out."

Alli, a less-powerful version of GlaxoSmithKline's prescription drug orlistat, got the go-ahead from the Food and Drug Administration earlier this month. It's the first weight loss drug to be approved for sale over the counter.

For men and women who need an extra boost in their weight loss regimen, Alli works to block the absorption of dietary fat in the body. This means all those hard hours in the gym can pay off quicker.

But for the many doctors and therapists who counsel patients living with eating disorders, the FDA approval of Alli has more serious consequences.

They worry that people suffering from anorexia and bulimia will see Alli as another option they can use to achieve their weight loss goals -- no matter what the consequences.

Quick Fix

"Everyone succumbs to this quick fix," said David Drajkowski, a psychotherapist in Milwaukee, Minn., who works with diet disorder patients. "I've had a bunch of patients fall into the diet drug craze."

With FDA approval, Drajkowski worries people will believe the drug is healthy, feeding into their desire for easy, painfree weight loss.

"As someone who works with diet disorder patients, this scares me," he said.

It isn't uncommon for those suffering from bulimia to abuse laxatives. Anorexics have also been known to take insulin-blocking drugs to suppress their hunger.

"This is just another product for people to waste money on and get more sick," said Rachel Quast, author of "Journey From the Storm Within: 9 Steps to Eating Disorder Recovery."

While Alli is only recommended for adults who are overweight, with a body mass index of at least 27, there is still concern that teenagers will find the drug appealing.

"It is going to get the young kids addicted. They'll get their hands on it -- they always do," Quast said. "That's real scary."

Drajkowski is also worried.

"I would think this could generate more people with diet disorders," he said, "or cause more disordered thinking."

But Alli comes with some uncomfortable side effects. The manufacturer warns the drug can cause changes in bowel habits, gas with oily discharge and an increase in bowel movements, with the inability to control them.

Becker, however, doesn't think this would have stopped her, or anyone else with an eating disorder.

"Regardless of the side effects, I had to keep taking the pills," she said. "I used all my energy working and thinking about eating. This was the easy way out."

Road to Recovery

At 19, Becker is now at a healthy 118 pounds, and can now recount the difficult road to getting better.

Abusing diet pills wreaked havoc on her young body. She now suffers from heart palpitations and diabetes. The pills also caused edema in her legs that is so bad it is sometimes too painful for her to walk.

"The doctor told me if I keep this up, I'd die of a heart attack," she said.

So Becker sought help, and got better. She sees an outpatient counselor three times a week and meets with support groups. Slowly, she is learning to be more comfortable around people, and not to think they are judging her or her weight. And she doesn't need the pills.

"I'd been either completely watching my weight or singing," she said. "Now I'm learning that perfect balance" of being healthy.

For Becker, it is important to do anything she can to help others who suffer. She feels she can relate to the disordered thinking.

"Everything you do now affects you down the road," she said. "You think 'I'm not going to get addicted to this' -- it's not as simple as that."

Her best advice: Anyone who thinks about using these pills for the wrong reasons should see their doctor immediately.

"Talk about your feelings, don't hide them," she said. With a reminder: "You're beautiful. We're all beautiful."