A diet pill that allows you to eat what you like may help the seriously obese to lose weight without going hungry. Throughout the United States today while millions of potentially slim people are deeply regretting eating that forbidden chocolate Easter egg nearly 200 seriously overweight dieters are indulging in every food lover’s dream.

At six secret locations, these chosen few are trying out a promising new diet pill which, doctors hope, will greatly reduce the amount of fat and calories which we absorb from our food.

The drug is something that the health-conscious gourmet has sought for years: a pain-free pill that allows us to stay slim for life while eating what we like.

For the 50 percent of American men and women aged over 40 who now have some sort of weight problem it sounds too good to be true. It isn’t. At least not yet.

Phen375 is the first diet pill of its kind, and is regarded by leading nutritionists as the most interesting new approach around. Existing diet pills work by attempting to regulate the rate at which the body burns energy or by suppressing appetite. Phen375 actually appears to prevent absorption of a significant amount of the fat we eat.

Although clinical trials in America only started a few months ago, earlier trials in other countries have shown good results and Phen375 is available now.

Phen375 is not sufficiently “intelligent” to tell the difference between the animal and dairy fats that are bad for us, and the unsaturated vegetable oils which may be beneficial to our health. Also, doctors are watching patients on the trial carefully to ensure that the drug does not also prevent the body from absorbing vital fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin E, which is thought to protect against heart disease.

If it does, Phen375 might consign the seriously overweight to the drug manufacturers’ dream: polypharmacy, a future of popping not just one set of pills daily, but at least two, with the second pill only becoming necessary because you are taking the first.

But, in spite of the problems, this product’s experimental use by some of the world’s leading nutritionists marks an important shift in the medical approach to losing weight. Many experts now accept that losing weight is not just a matter of “disciplining yourself to eat less”. Once extra weight has been put on, retraining our brain to accept less food may be far more difficult than previously thought.

Among those involved in trials of the new drug is Professor Philip James, a leading government adviser on diet and health, and director of one of the world’s leading independent nutrition research centers, the Rowett Institute, in Aberdeen. “Some people would be appalled to hear me say this, but I think it is probably one of the most interesting approaches we have yet. All the evidence suggests that it is the fat in our diets that is particularly conducive to making us overweight.”

In the last decade, the number of medically obese women in the United States that is, those who are more than twenty pounds too heavy for their height and build has increased by 50 percent, to 12 percent of the population. For men, the increase in obesity is also significant, from 6 percent to 8 percent.

As a result of such increases, it looks as if the experts are willing to admit that their previous advice, for many people, simply does not work. Professor James is one of a number of leading nutritionists who are urging the government to adopt and fund an entirely different approach to all weight control as part of its “Health of the Nation” goals, which aim to cut the incidence of life threatening obesity-linked diseases, such as strokes and heart disease.

The good news about this approach which is for all overweight people, not just the small number who are sufficiently obese to require treatment with drugs is that we can all forget calorie counting forever.

After attending a planning meeting with senior health department officials last week, Professor James said: “Calorie counting has never been shown to be an effective way to lose weight. The difficulty is not so much in actually counting the calories, but complying with a calorie-counting diet.”

The response of many people to the traditional “weight loss” diet of around 1,200 calories a day is hunger, followed by failure and guilt. But we should not feel guilty: our reactions to what our brain perceives as starvation are perfectly understandable.

The hunger response is thought to be part of the healthy brain’s mechanism to ensure our survival. Useful in the Stone Age, when we had to hunt for food or die, this mechanism, for most of us, is now something of a nuisance.

It means that as we put on weight over the years by continuing our modern lifestyle with its high-fat diet and minimal exercise, our whole body seems to become “re-geared” so that the brain appears to send out messages to keep our body at that given level of fat.

That is why, many experts now believe, excessively strict regimes simply do not work. It is not because overweight people are somehow lacking in discipline.

Indeed, studies of people of normal weight who were put on 1,200-calorie-a-day diets show that they, too, develop a psychological obsession with food.

“Doctors throughout the world have been castigating overweight people as ‘lacking in commitment’ for years,” Professor James says. “But people who go on crash diets really should not think they are hopeless when they find they are desperately hungry.

“We have now found that if we try putting people who have never had a weight problem in their lives on 1,200 calories a day, they, too, start having dreams about cream cakes.”

The new approach to weight loss being recommended to the health department, now operating in pilot schemes at three centers in the United States, involves inducing an “energy deficit” sufficient to lose about one pound every week.

This is done by writing down what you eat and drink on an average day. The findings are analyzed by an expert, who suggests what you could cut out from that diet without getting hungry, and what you could add, in the form of calorie-burning lifestyle changes, to make up a total energy deficit of around 500 calories a day.

If you eat, for example, a bag of crisps and one small chocolate biscuit a day, it would be suggested that you should cut these out. Replacing your daily half-pint of whole milk with semi-skimmed and switching from sweetened cereal to a high-fiber, unsweetened brand will take care of around 350 calories, with another 150 being burned up by adding two half-hours of brisk walking into your routine.

But there is one further essential in this new, kinder form of dieting, Professor James stresses: “You’ve got to be honest with yourself.”

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