Angel Beck had a lot of trouble losing weight until she combined exercise and a low-fat diet with an experimental drug.
"It was very successful for me," says Beck. "I lost more than 45 pounds."
The drug is orlistat and will be marketed under the name Xenical. Unlike other diet drugs, this one works by blocking the body's absorption of fat.
Beck's results were dramatic. But a study published in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association found that patients who weighed 220 pounds on average when they started lost just 19 pounds, or 9 percent of their body weight.
"That's significant," says Dr. Steven Heymsfield, a senior investigator at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital, "because even a small weight loss can yield major health benefits."
Those benefits include lowering of blood sugar, lipids or cholesterol, blood pressure, and serum insulin, which, says Dr. Heymsfield, is a very potent risk factor for cardio-vascular disease.
However, most orlistat users also suffered major side effects, including gas, cramping, and diarrhea - especially if they went off the diet.
"If you go out and have a high-fat hamburger or pizza, you'll find yourself with some cramping or bloating and, in a way, it teaches you not to overeat," Dr. Heymsfield explains.
Some doctors remain skeptical.
"We are losing the battle against obesity, and we are waiting expectantly for new drugs to help us. I don't think orlistat is going to be the penicillin of weight loss," says Dr. Harold Solomon of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Even its supporters warn that orlistat can't replace the old standbys: exercising more and eating less.
The manufacturer, working closely with the FDA, expects the drug to be on pharmacists' shelves later this year.
Reported By Jacqueline Adams