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The History of Diet Pills (1893 - Present)

Donald Christman
Published by Donald Christman | Medical Student and Professional Journalist
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: May 22, 2023
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The adverse consequences of using diet pills in the past have had a significant influence on the development of modern weight loss treatments.

As a fitness trainer, one of my duties is to help my clients pick the best weight loss products. So, I spent about three months researching old supplements and also looking into how modern ones are developed to understand their evolution better and make sure the ones we use today are safe.

In this article, I'll discuss the history of diet pills, so keep reading to learn how they have affected the way people lose weight today.

Let's begin.

Quick Summary

  • The old diet pills also called fat reducers were based on thyroid extraction, which automatically increased an individual's metabolism aiding fat loss.
  • Some diet pills from the 20th to the 21st century include DNP, amphetamines, aminorex, and ephedra.
  • The old pills are different from the modern ones in terms of composition, therapeutic use, and ingestion method.

A Brief History of Early Diet Pills

pouring capsules

The first diet pills, called "fat reducers" and sold under names such as "Frank J. Kellogg's Safe Fat Reducer," appeared in 1893 [1].

Since these drugs were based on thyroid extract, which increases metabolism, they were considered powerful fat loss aids [2].

However, people with normal thyroid conditions and metabolic rates have reported experiencing adverse effects, including chest pains, hypertension, irregular heartbeats, palpitations, and fatigue.

Although thyroid hormone had health risks, it remained popular as a weight-loss method up until the 1960s [3].

Diet Pills From the Twentieth to the Twenty-First Century

pills and capsules

Slimming pills were introduced in the 1900s. As people used them, they found that these drugs had negative effects on their health, which prompted many researchers to develop natural and safer modern weight loss treatments.

DNP (Dinitrophenol) 1930’s

DNP (2,4-Dinitrophenol) was among the first anti-obesity drugs that were introduced to the market in 1933. It became famous as a diet pill due to its ability to boost metabolism [4].

While it was truly effective in reducing weight, soon enough it became apparent the risks outweigh the benefits, as many reports of sudden deaths started to pile on.

One of the complications was unusually high temperatures, or hyperpyrexia, indicating abnormal increases in metabolic rates.

On top of that, several consumers reported severe rashes and loss of vision and taste [5].

These unexpected reports demonstrated that the drug was unsafe for human use, resulting in the drug being outlawed in the U.S. in 1938 [6].

Amphetamines 1950's

Amphetamines 1950's

Medical practitioners initially prescribed amphetamines to treat colds, asthma, and sleeping disorders.

Also, doctors used them to increase the attention span of children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and boost the wakefulness and concentration of soldiers during World War II [7].

In addition to its wide range of therapeutic uses, it is also effective as an appetite suppressant that helps reduce weight [8].

However, it's still widely used among young people [9].

The misuse of these stimulants resulted in many people ending up with long-term side effects, which led pharmaceutical companies to come up with diet drugs that were less addictive.

Aminorex 1960's

Aminorex fumarate, another medication for treating obesity, was developed in 1965. However, many cases of pulmonary hypertension have been linked to it, which led to its withdrawal from the market in 1968 [10].

Consequently, the use of thyroid extract was revived as a weight-loss method with diuretics, laxatives, and amphetamines but eventually fell out of use due to concerns about toxicity.

Ephedra 1970's

A Danish physician used ephedrine and caffeine to treat asthma in the 1970s.

Ephedrine is an herbal stimulant derived from the Ephedra plant, a low evergreen shrub with small scaly leaves that has traditionally been used to treat common respiratory problems [11].

Many researchers, however, discovered its potential for assisting people in losing weight and improving physical performance in athletes [12].

As a result of these studies, Ephedra was classified as an herbal stimulant not requiring FDA approval.

Ephedra was widely used as a weight-loss remedy, but it also came with many severe side effects, including high blood pressure, heart attacks, and seizures, and the FDA declared Ephedra to be unsafe [13].

"Ephedra [which comes from ma huang] is effective, particularly when combined with aspirin and other ingredients. But it raises blood pressure and can cause fatal heart attacks, [heart] arrhythmias, and strokes. The ads are very deceptive for ma huang regarding safety."

- Steven Heymsfield, MD, Professor of Medicine at Columbia University


Alternatives To Amphetamine 1970s-1990s

powder and pills

In the following years, pharmaceutical companies began developing diet pills that were less potent than amphetamines but were more effective at suppressing appetite than caffeine.

These slimming pills, or anorectics, were similar in their chemical composition, and they were called phentermine, fenfluramine, and dexfenfluramine, and they were approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in 1959, 1973, and 1996, respectively [14].

While these anorectics are FDA-approved for short-term obesity treatment, some doctors prescribed them for more extended periods and in combination, resulting in "off-label" or unapproved drug use in the 1990s.

The combination of fenfluramine and phentermine, colloquially known as "fen-phen" [or phen-fen] became a drug craze in 1996, with many people wanting to lose weight [15].

However, the widespread drug use was associated with long-term side effects, such as primary pulmonary hypertension (PPH), a condition in which blood vessels in the lungs narrow, causing unexpected deaths [16].

Because of the risks of these drugs, many researchers have begun developing safer yet equally effective alternatives based entirely on natural ingredients.

Herbal Diet Pills 2000's - Present

Many different slimming pills have been researched and developed since the start of the twenty-first century, giving rise to new ways to lose weight.

Many people have switched to alternative methods for fat burning, such as drinking coffee as an appetite suppressant and taking laxatives as treatment for eating disorders because they were thought to aid digestion and weight loss.

They are also increasingly opting for recently developed slimming solutions such as prescription medicines and over-the-counter supplements, including botanical therapeutics and dietary supplements [17].

Many pharmaceutical companies recognized the growing market for supplements derived from herbal root extracts, vitamins, minerals, stimulants, and nootropics. This led to the creation of tried and tested products, such as Leanbean and PhenQ, which gained a lot of attention based on expert reviews.


Today, PhenQ, which is made up of all-natural, organic ingredients such as capsicum to increase metabolism, piperine to enhance nutrient absorption, and enough caffeine to support energy production, to name a few, gets the spot as the best diet supplement brand for 2021 [18].

How Do Old Diet Pills Differ From Modern Ones?

spoonful of pills and capsules

Modern diet pills differ significantly from earlier slimming pills in terms of composition, mode of consumption, or use in medicine.


Early diet pills contain a mixture of chemicals, chemical compounds, and heavy metals that, with misuse and abuse, can cause organ damage, mental disorders, and cancer [19].

On the other hand, modern prescription drugs contain less harmful chemical ingredients. Whereas over-the-counter natural supplements primarily rely on blends of herb extracts, stimulants, and nootropics with a low risk of adverse reactions.

Ingestion Methods

Both old and modern weight-reducing products are available in various forms, including capsules, tablets, liquids, powders, and injectables [20].

They are taken orally or injected intramuscularly under medical supervision and are safe at the recommended dosage. Furthermore, consumers should always follow the manufacturer's instructions or the advice of their doctor.

Therapeutic Use

Diet pills were commonly used to make fat loss easier and faster. In addition, they were used to treat conditions like insomnia and mental disorders [21].

Today, prescription diet pills and natural supplements are generally designed to control or maintain body weight by suppressing appetite, increasing metabolism, preventing fat absorption, or prolonging feelings of fullness through slow gastric emptying.

Mental And Physiological Side Effects Of Old Diet Pills

man in pain with drugs

Early diet pills were shown to cause side effects, such as mood disorders, psychological addiction, or eating disorders such as anorexia, which can be fatal if not treated.

Drug Dependency

Amphetamines have a high potential for drug abuse. Long-term use of methamphetamine, for example, can cause people to lose weight, but the use of this drug is restricted due to its highly addictive properties [22].

When people discontinue anorectic use, their bodies should adjust to the absence of drugs in their systems. They may experience hallucinations, dizziness, insomnia, vomiting, and stomach cramps as withdrawal symptoms [23].

Seeking medical counseling, treatment, and guidance may all be part of the process of overcoming diet pill addiction.

Eating Disorders

empty plate

Misuse and abuse of anorectic drugs can result in eating disorders such as anorexia, characterized by a chronic loss of appetite.

People diagnosed with this condition may experience depression, impaired cognitive function, and severe health complications. Furthermore, if untreated, anorexia can lead to death [24].

Eating disorder therapies may include:

  • Psychological counseling
  • Addressing its causes and symptoms
  • A medical treatment aimed at assisting the patient in regaining a healthy weight


Long-term diet pill use poses a potential risk for overdose. One can experience irritability, personality changes, and hallucinations during a drug overdose.

For some people, their overdose symptoms are similar to withdrawal symptoms, including stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and muscle twitching.

“Not everyone responds to the same drug in the same fashion, whether it’s weight loss drugs or other drugs.”

- Nikhil V. Dhurandhar, PhD, Professor & chair of the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Texas Tech University in Lubbock

However, rare and intense symptoms may be experienced, including irregular fluctuations of blood pressure, difficulty breathing, convulsions, and coma [25].

Do Modern Alternatives Have The Same Side Effects As Old Diet Pills?

different capsules and pills in hands

Modern alternatives, such as prescription pills and herbal supplements, may have similar but less severe side effects as early slimming drugs if they are not used as directed by a physician or as written on the label.

Prescription drugs contain less harmful chemical ingredients that undergo tests to ensure their quality, potency, and purity. However, they may still cause some health problems if taken in higher doses for a much longer period than prescribed.

Furthermore, some supplements may contain herbs that may interact with other substances and result in toxic effects. Also, some have proprietary blends that do not disclose the exact amounts of their ingredients, so some herbal remedies may not always be safe.

Fortunately, many supplement companies follow the US-FDA regulation on good manufacturing practices (GMPs), which establishes rigorous standards for pharmaceutical companies involved in manufacturing, packaging, labeling, and storing dietary supplements [26].

Furthermore, most modern supplements like PhenQ are subjected to third-party testing to determine and certify if a diet pill is of high quality.


What Are Some Popular Diet Pills Today?

Some of the most popular prescription diet pills today are Bupropion-naltrexone (Contrave), Liraglutide (Saxenda), Orlistat (Xenical), and Phentermine-topiramate (Qsymia). On the other hand, top herbal supplements include PhenQ, Leanbean, and Trimtone.

Do Prescription Weight Loss Drugs Work?

Prescription weight loss drugs can work in one or more of the following ways: they suppress appetite, increase feelings of fullness, or inhibit fat absorption. Furthermore, research has shown that combining fat-burning supplements with lifestyle changes can result in a greater weight reduction than lifestyle changes alone.

How Did Old Diet Pills Influence Weight Loss Treatment Today?

The use of diet pills in the past has shown dangerous side effects, which made people want to use natural ingredients in their weight loss treatments today.

When it comes to manufacturing and distributing supplements, many modern pharmaceutical companies follow strict rules, so people can buy prescribed medicines from drugstores and legal supplements online.

However, because there are so many supplements on the market today, I strongly advise my clients to choose a diet pill that contains no proprietary blends, has been subjected to third-party testing, and is effective and safe in delivering fat-burning results.

Years of testing and analysis have confirmed that PhenQ meets all of my expectations.

My cients and I have found that this popular diet pill works well at suppressing appetite and giving us more energy, which helps us reach our weight loss goals faster.


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