The History of Diet Pills by Time Period

Over time, the perception of beauty continuously changes. Starting in the late 19th century, the attitudes concerning the weight, especially among women, have shifted towards a slimmer and much more athletic appearance. Because of this change, the search for various solutions for weight loss begun and has evolved through the years.

Early Diet Pills

The very first diet pills were made available during the patent medicine period of the late 1800s. They are often referred to as fat reducers. This is based on thyroid extract, which is known to increase the metabolism. The pills are also thought to be effective in weight reduction. However, the pills had side effects such as irregular heartbeat, increased heart rate, chest pains, weakness, high blood pressure, and death.

Although the risks were alarming, this continued to be available until the 1960’s.

Early 20th Century

In the 1930s, a new medication called dinitrophenol became a popular treatment for weight loss. This drug was shown to have thermogenic effects within the body. Several accidental deaths due to hyperthermia occurred due to the drug. Rashes, damaged taste, and eye cataracts also occurred. Because of this, new laws were enacted and gave more control to the Food and Drug Administration. The use of dinitrophenol in the United States was ceased.

Mid-20th Century

By the mid-1950s, the amphetamines became the drug of choice. This stimulant was given to soldiers in the World War II to keep them alert. One of the side effects of this drug was suppression of appetite. This is why pills are being prescribed in the United States to be able to lose weight. However, the risk for abuse, neurological and psychological effects are much more significant than the medical benefits. Another medication called aminorex fumarate was developed in the 1965 as a treatment for obesity. However, the condition triggered pulmonary hypertension which is why it is withdrawn in the market in 1968.

There was also resurgence in the usage of the thyroid hormone for weight loss. This was used in conjunction with diuretics, amphetamines, and laxatives in order to promote weight loss. Eventually, this method ceased because of toxicity.


In the 1970s, ephedrine was used by a Danish physician. It is used in combination with caffeine in order to treat asthma. Ephedrine was then prescribed for losing weight. In the year 1994, the United States has passed an act called the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. This act classifies ephedra as an herb that doesn’t require approval from the FDA. Consequently, the widespread usage of ephedra for obesity has increased. The adverse reactions to the medication are commonly cardiovascular and neurological problems. The FDA is forced to declare that ephedra as unsafe. Phenylpropanolamine which is a chemical derived from ephedra has also become a popular appetite suppressant. Its use was discontinued when hemorrhagic stroke and increased blood pressure were reported.


The medication called fenfluramine was approved in 1973 as a weight loss supplement. Its level of popularity increased in 1992 when it was combined with other medications called phentermine. The combination was later called fen-phen. Over 18,000 prescriptions were written in 1996. Adverse reactions particularly on the heart such as valve abnormalities and heart lesions were reported. Because of this, the use of fenfluramine and phentermine were voluntarily removed in the market.

The 21st Century

During the 21st century, the diet pills are often based in herbal formulations and these are proliferated in the market. The latest entry in the weight loss pill industry is Orlistat. This is sold as Xenical as a prescription and Alli as an over-the-counter drug. Orlistat is taken in conjunction with a reduced-calorie diet.