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Eating a sensible diet and exercising is still the best advice for long-term weight loss, but prescription appetite suppressants can help.

Approximately 35 percent of adult women and 31 percent of men in the United States are obese. Obesity is associated with increased rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, lung disease, joint disease and, in general, shortened life expectancy. It is also associated with an $82 billion diet program and dietary products industry.Though dietitians and nutritionists generally don't advocate taking diet pills, Dr. Nedra Christensen, nutrition specialist in the Utah State University College of Family Life, says there is evidence that they can be a useful part of a long-term weight-loss strategy.

She says in this particular study all participants received instruction on behavior modification, caloric restriction and exercise. They were also given varying doses of two of the most common appetite suppressant drugs, fenfluramine and phentermine (these are the generic equivalent names). One group was given a combination of the two drugs continuously for two years; another was given the drugs three months on and three months off - "cycling" for two years. A third group was given a larger dose of the two drugs.

The results showed that the drugs did help lead to a sustained weight loss over the two-year period, Christensen says. It, however, also showed that those who cycled the drugs lost as much weight overall as those who took the drug continuously. A third conclusion was that larger doses were not more effective.

She says the message from this and similar studies is that diet pills can be an effective part of a weight-loss program. A cautionary note is that taking more of the drug will not make you lose more weight. In fact, cycling on and off the drugs while on a weight loss program may be just as effective as continuous use.

Christensen says it is required by law that patients using this drug be followed closely by a physician and dietitian. Nutrition counseling and behavior modification by a dietitian are also required by law. A physician must monitor blood values and physical signs frequently.