New Diet Drug: The Great Lite Hope

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Call the kids, Martha -- we're all going down to the Big Boy for the triple cheesburger with extra grease and a side order of Krispy Kreme doughnuts! Yup, now that the FDA has approved the fat-blocking drug orlistat, we can wolf down mountains of previously forbidden fare -- and still get into our Calvins. Well, maybe. The flab-fighting pill, first of a new breed of pharmaceuticals that attacks obesity by blocking the body's absorption of fat, is approved only for the obese (people who are 30 percent overweight, or people 20 percent overweight with high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes). But doctors can prescribe orlistat for anyone, and if the experience with fen-phen -- the previous fad for dieters, which essentially tricked the brain into thinking it wasn't hungry but also was linked to heart valve trouble -- is any guide, they will.

Now for the fine print. The weight loss reported in the trials wasn't all that great -- 4 percent more than the loss reported by the placebo group. And the regimen is expensive -- the $3.30 for a daily dosage can slim down a wallet too. In addition, reducing the absorption of fat means you're also reducing some of the accompanying vitamins, so patients need to take fat-soluble vitamins and beta carotene. And all the fat that doesn't get absorbed has to go somewhere, and so users can get accustomed to what's delicately referred to as "oily stools." Still, when lives are in the balance, every little bit helps. "It's not the magic bullet," TIME health columnist Christine Gorman notes. "But literally every pound counts in terms of cholesterol and other health risks." In fact, the greatest benefit of the pill might be psychological: researchers report that the unpleasant side effects cause subjects to change their diets to reduce the amount of fat that they take in. On second thought, skip that cheeseburger and pass the salad.