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Meal Replacements & Appetite Suppressants

Walk into any grocery or drugstore and you're likely to see shelves full of products that claim to have the secret ingredient that will help you lose weight. Do they really work?

No magic pill or shake melts off the pounds just like that, no matter what the ads and labels say. But some products — namely meal replacements, over-the-counter appetite suppressants, and some dietary supplements — can help you lose some weight, as long as you know how to use them safely.

Check with your doctor before choosing one of these products to help you lose weight. Appetite suppressants and dietary supplements can be dangerous if you take too much, combine them with other drugs, or use if you have certain health conditions. And keep in mind that although they may be effective over the short term (a few weeks for appetite suppressants; a few months for meal replacements), they aren't a substitute for the tried-and-true weight-loss method: a healthy diet and regular exercise.

Here is a rundown of meal replacements and over-the-counter appetite suppressants, including how each works, how successful each is, and what to watch out for. Be sure to check out Dietary Supplements and Alternative Therapies: Herbs & Diet Teas for more information.

Meal replacements

Shakes, bars, powders, liquids, and puddings — such as Slim-Fast, MediFast, or Ensure, marketed as an alternative to your typical breakfast, lunch, or dinner — are considered meal replacements. They usually contain anywhere from 100 to 360 calories per serving and contain a percentage of your daily requirements of carbohydrate and protein, plus some vitamins and minerals.

They can help you lose weight, but you should know the facts before you invest in a meal replacement.

Overall, meal replacements are not a better choice than a healthy, low-fat meal, but they are very convenient and, on balance, better than running to McDonalds for a burger and fries on your lunch break. You do get vitamins and minerals in meal replacements, but you miss out on many of the phytochemicals found by eating a well-rounded diet.

Meal replacements don't teach you how to eat smaller portions of food. One problem with using them is keeping the weight off. Any time you lose weight, your body needs fewer calories; basically, your body adjusts to your new, lighter weight. When you stop using a meal replacement, if you go back to eating more calories again, you will gain weight.

The bottom line is that when you lose a significant amount of weight, you have to eat fewer calories overall to stay at the lower weight.

If you decide to opt for the convenience of a meal replacement, be sure you read the labels. If the first ingredient is sugar, corn syrup, or fructose, beware. These ingredients should not be listed higher than second or third; after all, you're looking for a meal replacement, not dessert.

Look for a replacement that provides some of your daily requirements of essential nutrients, including carbohydrate, protein, fiber, and calcium. And most important, be sure you're getting enough calories. Unless you are on a diet supervised by a physician, most experts suggest eating at least 1,200 calories a day. While you can get that many calories drinking meal replacements all day, it's wiser to eat at least one healthy, sensible meal a day.

Over-the-counter appetite suppressants

Over-the-counter appetite suppressants usually come in pill form. If you're considering an appetite suppressant, be sure to look for the ingredient phenylpropanolamine. (Benzocaine is sometimes used in appetite suppressants, but one study shows it doesn't help you lose weight, and it can have some unwanted side effects.)

Phenylpropanolamine is believed to suppress appetite by affecting the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that helps regulate appetite. Patients in one 16-week study lost a quarter-pound to half a pound a week while taking phenylpropanolamine.

Taken according to package directions, phenylpropanolamine is considered safe, but certain medications, such as asthma medicines and some cold medicines, and certain medical conditions, don't mix well with this drug. Over-the-counter appetite suppressants may help you shed five pounds or so, but it's not a good idea to take them for more than a few weeks. And always ask your doctor before using them.

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