When one of the NHS' most senior doctors expressed his disdain for "damaging" quick-fix celebrity-endorsed diet products in February, the outcry of support was palpable. Academics, members of the public and campaigners (perhaps most powerfully the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation) united in agreement with Professor Stephen Powis' damning verdict: "Highly influential celebrities are letting down the very people who look up to them, by peddling products which are at best ineffective and at worst harmful."
It's not just through #spon Instagram posts that skinny teas, appetite-suppressant lollipops, meal replacements, slimming powders (one of which has been dubbed "a gastric band in a glass" by fans) and more, pollute our media landscape. Ads for diet pills and other weight-loss products are shown during TV ad breaks for shows like Love Island, on YouTube, in magazines and on public transport (the 2015 Protein World "Beach Body Ready" controversy sprung from its meal-replacement shakes ads).
Part of the reason why these products are unavoidable is down to the way in which they're regulated in the UK. Under EU regulations, many diet pills are classified as "medical devices" rather than drugs, meaning they can be sold more easily without the same rigorous testing, as the Guardian flagged last year. By being classed as "medical devices", diet pill manufacturers are also able to make claims that they wouldn't be able to make if they were classed as "food supplements", which the EU defines as "concentrated sources of nutrients (or other substances) with a nutritional or physiological effect."
But the backlash against diet products – and diet culture more broadly – has intensified in recent months. A petition to stop celebrities promoting them on social media, started by actor Jameela Jamil, who also campaigns for body positivity, has garnered more than 240k signatures at the time of writing. "In the last few years we have seen a scary rise in the marriage of celebrity and diet/detox endorsement," she writes. "There's little to no information about the side effects or main ingredients, the harm they may cause or any of the science behind how these products are supposed to work." Instead, celebrities and influencers ("with no expertise or authority in nutrition/medicine/biology") are flogging potentially harmful products to vulnerable consumers – most of whom will be young women.
Kirsten Jackson, a consultant gastroenterology dietitian and the founder of The Food Treatment Clinic, says it's "very common" for young women to take diet products, particularly among those who struggle with body image and disordered eating. "When you are struggling with your body weight it can be all consuming and you become quite vulnerable. You will try anything just to gain control. Unfortunately, we are seeing that quite a few people who have eating disorders are also using these pills as they are so easily obtained from health stores."
Diet aids are readily available both online and at health and beauty retailers on the UK high street. Superdrug sells a myriad of products in its online "diet and fitness" section, including appetite suppressants and detox tea, which claim to help users lose weight. Its own-brand "slenderplan fat binder capsules" (which cost £19.99 for 60) are meant to be taken two to three times a day for weight loss and claim to "bind fats and cholesterol from food to pass through the body undigested."
A Superdrug spokesperson told Refinery29 the company is "committed to helping people get healthier and feel more confident" and that it "supports those who want to lose, maintain or put on weight in a healthy and responsible way". They added: "All the products that we stock comply with all legal requirements and correct guidelines."
The retailer also stocks a brand named XLS Medical, whose products also include a "fat binder"; as well as Hunger Buddy (£9.99 for 40 capsules), which "swells up to 200x its original size like a balloon and forms a thick, indigestible gel, which fills up to 30-43% of the stomach"; and an "Appetite Reducer" (£13.99 for 60 capsules), which also swells to form a "thick gel" and fill the stomach to make users feel full "before leaving the system naturally". XLS Medical declined to comment on the products it sells or reply to any suggestion that they promote unhealthy body ideals.
When asked about the UK's current regulation of diet products, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which regulates medicines and the medical devices industries, told Refinery29: "Where products such as appetite suppressants are placed on the market with medical claims (such as for treatment of clinical obesity), the mode of action of the product will generally determine whether it is regulated as a medical device or a medicinal product. Where such products act physically in the stomach (as some bulking agents do) then they will be regulated as medical devices." The agency also said it has long "expressed concerns" about the EU's classification of many diet pills as medical devices, and that it has urged the EU to make changes to legislation.
Until all diet products are classified and regulated responsibly, users will continue to be lured by quick-fix claims. "There are an increasing number of supplements out there claiming to have certain medical benefits and actually they are largely untested and do have potential effects, such as diarrhoea," says Jackson. "There needs to be more transparency about the potential side effects... more rigorous, long-term studies and other considerations, such as who can access them, need to be looked at. While I love the idea of people taking action for their own health, these pills do not provide a long-term solution to weight loss and individuals instead need access to a registered dietitian who can guide them."
Thirty-year-old performer Holli Dillon was in her late teens/early 20s when she began taking diet sachets she purchased online – they purported to speed up users' metabolism and make them feel full – but taking them left her isolated, unhappy and were detrimental to her physical and mental health.
"I was on a quest to stay thin, but bulimia and anorexia were making me very tired and I wanted something to keep my energy up, so I started taking weight-loss sachets I bought online. They cost me about £20 for a box of two weeks' worth, and I'd take them three times a day if I could afford to.
I used diet sachets as a crutch to maintain my energy and feel like I was getting nutrients.
Holli Dillon, 30
I isolated myself a lot because of it. I was very often tired and would overbook myself with school work and extracurricular activities – I was incredibly motivated, but would burn out often. I used the diet sachets as a crutch to maintain my energy and feel like I was getting nutrients. They were designed for people to lose weight, and I didn’t need to. I found comfort in my routine of taking them, but I didn’t like lying to people if they asked what was in the water bottle I carried.
I kept my habit secret but I hated deceiving people – it would trigger a cycle of guilt and I would withdraw. I hid the packets, which added to the secrecy and meant I wouldn’t let anyone close enough to have a genuine relationship. This was how my eating disorder manifested, so the sachets were just an extension of this. It really affected my relationships and social time.
I was depressed, fairly anxious and had insomnia. I was very afraid of putting on weight, so I would also obsessively exercise. None of this exhibits a healthy mind, in fact my eating habits would be classed as self-harm. My diet was limited to as little fat as I could manage and though I was eating fruits and vegetables, my restriction would often result in a binge and purge; mostly because I just couldn’t function eating so little. (I later educated myself on fats and how important many of them are for essential brain and body function, which helped me to recover from bulimia.)
I didn’t talk about my habit much at the time, but when I started to, I discovered a lot of other women with unstable self-esteem did the same thing. I've since met people who have taken various diet pills and other pills. For me, it was a control-based addiction. I've become a lot more positive about my body since I stopped taking diet sachets and I now try to maintain a healthy diet."
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