The Ultimate Diet Pill?
If food is your torture, relief may be on the way. A new pill promises to help people lose weight by taking the edge off the cravings that make dieting so painful. A bonus: Your blood pressure, blood glucose, and cholesterol level might drop, too.
The drug, rimonabant, fights the drive to overeat by blocking receptors in the brain that bring on the "munchies" when they're activated by natural appetite-regulating chemicals. (As it happens, the chemicals behave a lot like marijuana, and their discovery in the 1990s was prompted by earlier research into how pot works in the body.) Rimonabant was approved in June for use in the European Union, where it goes by the name Acomplia. Manufacturer Sanofi-Aventis hopes for approval in this country by the end of the year.
Benefits. Besides helping to control appetite, the body system that rimonabant acts upon plays a role in regulating weight and the breakdown of glucose and fat, as molecules called endocannabinoids bind to receptors in fat, muscle, the gastrointestinal tract, and the liver. The system's many functions may explain why people taking rimonabant see improvement in a range of risk factors for heart disease and diabetes-their blood glucose, their cholesterol readings-that can't be explained by weight loss alone. "There's a growing body of evidence that in obesity the system is overactivated," says Louis Aronne, a professor at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York who has studied rimonabant. "What we're doing with this treatment is to try to tone it down to a normal level."
One hitch: Side effects reported include anxiety and depression. Some experts worry that the trials haven't looked at people who were depressed before starting the drug. "You could make the argument that a lot of obese people have an increased tendency to be depressed," says Stephen Woods, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Obesity Research Center at the University of Cincinnati. "How the drug will affect the obese person who's depressed is an unknown."
This story appears in the October 23, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.