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The Deadly Appeal of Weight Loss

It's common for people to use risky methods to try to lose weight, even when they don't need to.
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(Photo: West Merica Police)

(Photo: West Merica Police)

Eloise Parry, a 21-year-old student, died earlier this month within hours of taking diet pills. It's a shocking case. After all, as Parry's mother told police, "Most of us don't believe that a slimming tablet could possibly kill us."

Yet Parry isn't the first. Police think the pills she took contained a chemical called dinitrophenol, which a 2011 Journal of Medical Toxicology report attributed to at least 62 deaths. Dinitrophenol, or DNP, works by preventing the body's cells from using recently eaten food as energy. But, because you can't destroy energy in a closed system, the energy from the food has to go somewhere. It turns into heat. Take enough dinitrophenol, and it will cook you from the inside.

Dinitrophenol has been banned for consumption in the United States and the United Kingdom for decades, but even legally sold diet pills and other supplements are likely not healthful choices. Researchers and regulators have repeatedly found diet pills and other tablets sold in the supplement aisle contain ingredients they don't list—and don't contain ingredients they do list. A diet pill could contain an unsafe herb or lab-made chemical; you would never know.

Previous studies of dieters show many people have an unhealthy determination to lose weight.

In the face of these stories, why do people still take DNP and other diet supplements?

We can't say why Parry took DNP, or if she was even aware that what she took contained DNP. Previous studies of dieters, however, show many people have an unhealthy determination to lose weight. In 1995, for example, two public-health researchers found that nearly half of white women, one in four black women, and 16 percent of men who were trying to lose weight were not overweight. In 1999, 43 percent of American high school students were trying to lose weight, even though only 25 percent needed to. Trying to get slimmer, whether they need to or not, has been linked to stress in adolescent girls. Plus, weight-loss efforts often fail, which can hurt dieters' self-esteem.

Surely this is old news to anyone with the eyes to look around her, but it's still helpful to see the numbers.

And those are just the psychological effects of any dieting. Significant fractions of those who are trying to lose weight use "risky strategies," which researchers often define as extended fasting; vomiting after eating; or taking laxatives, diuretics, or diet pills. In the 1995 study of normal-weight dieters, 27 percent of blacks and 12 percent of whites used risky strategies. What's worse, the proportions may be higher in younger people, like Parry: In a nationally representative sample of American high school students, 32 percent of girls and 17 percent of boys trying to lose weight used fasting, vomiting, laxatives, or diet pills. Folks under 30 are also more likely to smoke cigarettes if they are trying to lose weight.

Why does weight loss seem to be worth all this to so many people? That's a story for another time. (You might take a gander at Pacific Standard's stories about fat shaming and fat phobia.) Suffice it to say that while Parry's mother, Fiona, is pleading for people not to take DNP, we would like to extend the appeal for people to love themselves a little more, and to try to lose weight a little less.