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Xenadrine RFA-1's advertising campaigns brag of "clinical studies" that "prove" it significantly alters the ratio of fat to muscle, "which results in significant improvements to the body's metabolism." The boasts are backed by testimonials and snazzy before-and-after shots of happy customers, but no explanation of how these metabolic improvements might occur, or what they might be. It's unlikely Bechler knew that Xenadrine RFA-1 is not approved for weight loss, or anything else, by the Food and Drug Administration. Nor is it likely he was aware that Congress has for years debated a ban on its active ingredient, the herb ephedra.

Ephedra can be found in more than 200 weight-loss aids and energy boosters. Among these is Metabolife 356, the country's best-selling over-the-counter diet preparation. Metabolife 356 contains a particularly potent combination of ephedra and caffeine, which the maker claimed for years had no serious side effects. Under threat of a federal investigation and criminal charges, Metabolife president David Brown finally admitted last year that between 1997 and September 2001 his company received roughly 13,000 reports of "certain health-related issues" linked to the supplement, among them heart attacks, strokes, seizures and death. A subsequent analysis added high blood pressure, palpitations, psychosis and other serious problems. Indeed, while ephedra makes up less than one percent of herbal supplement sales, it accounts for 64 percent of all reported side-effects from herbs. And for every one of these incidents, the FDA estimates, nearly 100 go unreported.

Looking back, it's almost incredible that anyone would consider ephedra a safe method for weight loss. The herb contains ephedrine, which in its synthetic form is a staple on crash carts, the hospital emergency room trolleys filled with drugs and devices used to shock the near dead back to life. Because its effect on the central nervous system is similar to that of amphetamines, it is sometimes called "poor man's speed." The idea of shedding pounds without extra effort has great appeal, of course, and drug companies have for decades searched for a weight-loss elixir that would uncouple the burning of calories from the performance of work. Unfortunately, ephedra and other amphetamine-like substances do not divorce these functions. In fact, it is their side-effects—the nervous jitters, pounding heart, thumping blood pressure—that speed the metabolic rate. In many of the most popular weight loss preparations, this effect is enhanced by caffeine. Together, these can make for a deadly combination.

Since Bechler's death, Congress has stepped up its investigation of ephedra, and the supplement industry has scrambled to remove it from diet formulations.

Diet Supplements 101

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