Jahnelle Owusu, a 24-year-old college student from Maryland, had always had a slim figure, with curves complementing her 5-foot-10-inch, 140-pound frame. She had even been scouted for modeling opportunities in the past.
“Being so tall and so slender, I think I peaked in height, like, I don't know maybe, like, 12 or something like that. I was always praised. It was always compliments when it came to my figure,” she told BuzzFeed News. But in 2017, as she began noticing the popularity of women with voluptuous figures on Instagram, she contemplated taking the weight-gain syrup Apetamin for the first time.
Manufactured by the Indian pharmaceutical company TIL Healthcare and marketed as an “appetite stimulant,” Apetamin has not been sanctioned for safe consumption by the FDA or the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (the UK equivalent of the FDA). It contains cyproheptadine hydrochloride, a sedative antihistamine used for allergies available in the US and the UK by prescription only. The MHRA told BuzzFeed News in a statement that the sale and supply of Apetamin are unauthorized in the UK and that it is investigating a number of reports.
Yet the syrup is readily available to buy online from sites like Instagram, Amazon, and Pinterest. A simple search on Amazon showed one item available for just £9 ($12.30), though some of the comments under the post questioned the authenticity of the unregulated product. After BuzzFeed News reached out to Amazon for comment, the item was removed from its website. We also reached out to Pinterest, which said it had policies against selling substances that cause harm on its platform. Users can no longer search for Apetamin on Pinterest. A search on YouTube for Apetamin shows dozens of videos with a link in the description on where to buy Apetamin. When BuzzFeed News showed these to YouTube they removed the channels and said they violated their policies.
The side effects of consuming Apetamin include joint swelling, drowsiness, vomiting, and blurred vision.
Instagram remains the most popular place to buy Apetamin online. The price of a 6.8-ounce (200-milliliter) bottle ranges from $25 to $40. In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a Facebook company spokesperson said that buying and selling nonmedical or prescription drugs is strictly against its policies: “We work closely with the police to detect and keep illegal material off our platform and urge anyone who sees this kind of content to report it so we can investigate and take action.”
Apetamin is so popular online that there are now even knockoffs. Some vendors have waiting lists, and viral images circulate online that are supposed to help people decipher if their bottle is real or fake. TIL Healthcare has never addressed the sale of copycat Apetamin despite a growing market for potentially dangerous copies of its syrup.
Tai Ibitoye, a registered dietician and nutritional researcher based in London, is unwavering in her opinion of Apetamin. “I would not recommend it at all,” Ibitoye told BuzzFeed News. She expressed concerns over the lack of vigorous research available to allow users to make well-informed decisions.
“I know a lot of people who take this and have seen the benefits they wanted in terms of weight gain,” Ibitoye said. “However, I tell individuals that it's not always about what is on the outside. It's also about what's happening on the inside.” The side effects of consuming Apetamin include joint swelling, drowsiness, vomiting, and blurred vision.
Still, the ubiquity of social media ads for the syrup among Black influencers has made the supplement appealing for Black women trying to attain a more curvaceous figure. The Shade Room has promoted the syrup in the past and so have the influencers Aaliyah Jay and Lala Milan. (Representatives for Milan and Jay did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment in time for publication of this article.) The Shade Room deleted its post promoting Apetamin after BuzzFeed News reached out for comment. A curvy figure has long been touted as the apex of Black femininity. But a relentless pursuit of this standard can be dangerous. And the lack of proper regulation across several platforms means that businesses selling Apetamin continue to thrive at the expense of Black women who appear to be deliberately targeted in the marketing.
Though Owusu was initially skeptical about the syrup (“I found it on social media and I watched a few videos on it and it didn't seem, I guess, a safe product”), she told BuzzFeed News that her decision to take it was “an impulse.” She said gaining weight had always been a personal ambition and her arrival at college made her desire a “more mature, more womanly” body.
She was able to purchase a bottle at an African food market, and over an eight-week period, she said she consumed six bottles in total and gained 60 pounds, going from 140 pounds to 200 pounds. But then her feet and ankles began to swell and she began to experience drowsiness. “It's not fatigue as in you're just tired — it literally puts you to sleep,” she said. Her dermatologist noted hyperpigmentation from rapid weight gain on her inner thigh, the back of her neck, and around her armpits.
In a YouTube video posted last year, Owusu gave a candid account of her experience with Apetamin, warning subscribers: “This is not a booty-gaining medicine; it’s a weight-gain medicine.” She said she would not take the supplement again. “I guess after I made my YouTube video, I didn't expect it to go as far as it did, but I did have some people in the comments weigh in on some of the things I experienced and they just brought some things to light. I guess just some things that made me a little bit concerned to take it again.”
Owusu added that she would caution teenagers and anyone “who hasn't fully developed” not to take Apetamin.
Tyler Thompson, a 17-year-old high school student from Georgia, used Apetamin because she was self-conscious about weighing 109 pounds and wanted to “glow up.”
“In school you're always gonna have dumb bullies and stuff,” Thompson said. But she added that her decision to use the supplement “wasn't necessarily because people were making fun of me.” Thompson said she wanted to change how she looked so she started researching online for a low-maintenance way to gain weight. “I'm the type of person that's very lazy. So working out was not for me, like not at all,” she said.
“It's not fatigue as in you're just tired — it literally puts you to sleep.”
Thompson found videos about Apetamin all over Youtube. They were primarily testimonials from people her age who had had good experiences with the syrup. She said she decided to purchase a bottle through an Instagram account that was linked in a YouTube video because she had heard of people being scammed while trying to buy Apetamin. Thompson summarized her experience with the syrup as “trials and tribulations.”
She has used Apetamin twice and said she instantly started feeling very hungry and ate a lot of junk food. She said she saw the gain almost instantly, her weight going to about 125–130 pounds after drinking just one bottle. “That's the crazy thing,” Thompson said. “I only really took it for a week and two days.”
She started to worry about the side effects though because the drowsiness of the medicine took a toll on her. “The thing that worried me was how I was so tired,” she said. “I'm very active. So for me to be tired like that, that really took a lot and I was like, Whoa.”
And while most people complain about losing the weight immediately after they stop taking Apetamin, Thompson said she didn’t lose the weight. She currently weighs about 130 pounds and is planning to take it again. While Thompson seemed to only experience mild side effects, there are a number of people who have complained of more severe side effects on social media and online forums. One former user of Apetamin who had lupus said they were hospitalized with kidney problems and advised people curious about taking Apetamin against taking it.
Shakera Bunsie, a 26-year-old New York–based content creator, said she was in excruciating pain all the time when she took Apetamin. Bunsie started taking the drug in 2016 because she was unhappy and insecure about weighing 120 pounds. She said she bought it from a beauty supply online store in Harlem.
During the two years she was taking Apetamin on and off, she filmed her experience for videos she posted on her YouTube channel. She posted a video last year June explaining why she no longer used the supplement, saying the onset of debilitating cramps she experienced made her unable to move. During one of those painful cramps, she was in the shower and she found herself trapped. "No one was home," Bunsie says in the video. “I was in the shower and I left my phone downstairs so the pain struck and I was laying over on the tub trying to find the tears.” She managed to get herself out of the tub and lay on the floor until the pain passed.
Bunsie took a trip to a gynecologist as she assumed that the pain was a gynecological issue. But her doctor couldn’t determine what was causing the pain. Once they learned she was taking Apetamin, they recommended Bunsie see her primary care doctor because they had never heard of the syrup.
The syrup tends to be prescribed for malnourished children for short-term use.
Bunsie said she saw her doctor a year after the pain got worse. Her doctor didn’t seem to know much about Apetamin either and asked her how she had purchased the syrup. Like many people, Bunsie was under the impression it was a vitamin supplement. Her doctor then did research on the drug and told Bunsie that the syrup tends to be prescribed for malnourished children for short-term use.
Bunsie told us she stopped taking Apetamin and her pain subsided. However, when she lost some of the weight she had gained, she started using it again. She thought that if she decreased how much Apetamin she was taking that she wouldn’t be in pain. “I wasn't gaining weight rapidly like I was at first, but I was gaining some weight," said Bunsie who weighed 130 pounds then but wanted to weigh 150 pounds. But the pain returned and she was forced to quit again.
A 2020 case study by four doctors at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences investigated a 40-year-old woman’s symptoms of fatigue, right-side abdominal discomfort, and jaundice were caused by Apetamin usage. The doctors note that her use of the drug combined with alcohol led to drug-induced autoimmune hepatitis, a liver disease that can be fatal if not treated early.
“Apetamin is not worth destroying your health,” Bunsie said.
Even with all the worrying side effects, Roxanne Ramsey from Baltimore swears by Apetamin. She credits it as being key to her weight-gain journey and fundamental in the pursuit of her 115-pound goal. Ramsey uses the supplement as part of a broader fitness regimen that includes working out and consuming protein shakes. Like so many others, she discovered Apetamin online after seeing Instagram accounts making grand promises of thicker thighs, broader hips, and an enviable rear.
The 30-year-old said she first found the drug on Instagram on a page called Apetamin Gains in 2018. “They would post, you know, the Fashion Nova models and the girls probably with surgery. They would post those types of pictures and saying Apetamin did that,” she said
“I've always been 87 pounds all my life,” said Ramsey, who is 5 feet 1 inch tall. “The most I've ever weighed was 102 and that's when I was taking the Apetamin, but it's hard to keep the weight on because my appetite is naturally low. I'm fine being little, but I would like to gain a couple of pounds.”
“They would post, you know, the Fashion Nova models and the girls probably with surgery. They would post those types of pictures and saying Apetamin did that.”
As an early adopter, Ramsey was able to get herself a deal on a large stock of the supplement from an African and Caribbean food market. “I bought a huge box of Apetamin and maybe like 50 of them came in a box and I got it for $100 which says a lot because now they're selling Apetamin for like $30 a bottle,” she said.
An Instagram account called Apetamin_booty_gainz asks followers if they “want to get slim thick” and describes the supplement as “magic,” great for “weight gain, body builder, hip/butt enlargement and for appetite enhancer.”
Despite the grand promises and marketing attached to the drug online, Ramsey has never had any illusions about what is actually achievable for her petite physique and knows she needs to work out to maintain her shape. For now, though, her focus is weight gain and the supplement helped her sustain an appetite, forcing her body to crave more food than she was generally accustomed to.
“It takes a lot of dedication just to gain weight, just as much as it does to lose weight. So I guess the Apetamin kind of takes away a little bit of that dedication required because it does the work for you,” she said.
Ramsey said drowsiness is a side effect, but she added that for her, it was a reaction that doesn’t last long.
“The first, maybe three or four days, you're going to be so tired you have to go to sleep,” she said. “Once you get past that, it doesn't make you sleepy so I don't know if your body gets used to it or why you get sleepy because there are no instructions on the bottle, but you definitely get really tired. It knocks you out like NyQuil.”
Still, despite the side effects, Ramsey has recommended Apetamin to friends and watched them have positive outcomes as well, and continues to use the supplement herself. She acknowledged that it wasn’t something she could use for the rest of her life, but she is still committed to following her regimen in order to reach her body goals.
“It just is all about consistency, dedication, but it is hard. It's very hard to go to the gym and stand on the scale one day and I'm 90 pounds. The next day I'm 93, and the day after that I'm 92. You get discouraged without the Apetamin, but it's just all about consistency.”
Prior to puberty, 22-year-old content creator Vanessa Wood said she had very few concerns about her body image. She enjoyed the perks of a fast metabolism and regularly indulged in her favorite foods. But the Londoner said becoming a teenager triggered her insecurities. She was forced to field off questions about her slim figure that often came in the form of “backhanded comments” and joke-laced insults. “It's like, people see my mom and my mom's quite thick — she got the curves and everything— and people see her daughter and you're just like, Hold on a minute. What's going on?” she said.
In response to the scrutiny, Wood began weighing herself weekly and intentionally wearing additional layers of clothing just to appear bigger. “I'd wear jeans under my school trousers to make my legs look a little bit bigger or I'd wear a jumper underneath my school blazers,” she said.
“If thickness and curves is desired these days and that's what's admired, you kind of want to fit into that.”
While it kept some of the more critical comments at bay, Wood said it became clear that layering up wouldn’t be a long-term solution, which prompted a search for more drastic measures. “I'd go online and look for the best thing to eat to gain weight or what things I could take and then Apetamin popped up in my search engine. That's when I saw YouTube videos and people were recommending it,” she said.
When she was 18 and 116 pounds, the content creator purchased her first bottle of Apetamin. During her first stint on the supplement, Wood said she was inconsistent in her usage because of the drowsiness and didn’t want to appear “lazy” while trying to juggle her college courses. After sporadically consuming two bottles over a period of two weeks, she said she was able to put on 10 pounds, but to her frustration, the weight didn’t stick.
The response to her initial weight gain was largely positive, according to Wood. “I'd get more compliments. I felt better in my pictures as well — you definitely notice a difference,” she said. Despite her naturally slim build, Wood defines her ideal body shape as “thickness and curves.” She acknowledged that her body ideal is largely influenced by a social media landscape where she believes women who possess these attributes are often lauded and can get economic opportunities.
“You can't really escape it. Sometimes you don't even have to be on social media to know what's going on. My mom's not on social media, but even she knows that if you're thick and you've got the curves, it's getting you attention — you are it,” Wood said.
As a content creator, Wood said she feels unable to escape the pressure to have a curvy body.
“If thickness and curves is desired these days and that's what's admired, you kind of want to fit into that,” she said. “It's everywhere, and people are going through extreme measures to be that image, and to be honest, I personally think that image right now is selling and that's a very important part, people love a bit of money so they'll do it.”
She quit taking Apetamin in 2017, but then started back up again four months ago, a decision she chronicled for her YouTube channel. For five weeks, Wood consumed a bottle a week and ate an average of 2,300 calories a day. Despite previously having side effects like swollen feet and bloating among others, Wood said she was prepared to keep using the supplement as necessary.
“I stopped taking it, and my weight hasn't dropped off,” Wood said. “I was still weighing myself to make sure it hadn't dropped because if it did, I'd start up again. I think if I was to ever experience something life-threatening, I'd obviously have to stop, but I haven't.”
Although Apetamin has been predominantly used by the Black community since at least 2012, when TIL Healthcare was founded, it now appears to be breaking into the mainstream through the social media app TikTok. At the time of writing, there are 5.5 million views on the Apetamin hashtag on TikTok, and approximately 1.7 million views on related hashtags. Some of the videos are about the experiences some people have had with the syrup and other videos advertise the sale of Apetamin. BuzzFeed News reached out to TikTok with some examples, and the company removed those videos from its platform and said that the depiction, promotion, or trade of drugs or other controlled substances is against its community guidelines.
“You wouldn't see it being sold in a mainstream drugstore retailer so it's quite clear, in terms of the pharmaceutical company, who their target audience is.”
Ibitoye, the registered dietician and nutritional researcher, is extremely concerned about the misuse of Apetamin, its promotion, and lack of regulation on the internet.
“Some people have noticed serious side effects by taking this supplement including dizziness and blurred vision. I personally know people who have experienced nausea and diarrhea,” she said. “There have been reports of people feeling very tired, experienced loss of energy, and in severe cases, some people have had issues with the liver. So the side effects are very, very dangerous.”
Ibitoye is also critical of the marketing of the supplement as a means to achieve a curvy and fuller figure, which she felt targeted primarily the Black community.
“You wouldn't see it being sold in a mainstream drugstore retailer so it's quite clear, in terms of the pharmaceutical company, who their target audience is, and even retailers who sell the supplements, they have a very clear agenda,” she added.
In her role, it isn’t uncommon to meet young Black women with the desire to gain weight for various reasons, which she says should be supported with “evidence-based advice” that focuses primarily on food.
As a professional, Ibitoye cautioned against “dismissing” individuals' health goals but pushed for the need to better interrogate how those ideals are shaped. “What I always advise my clients is to find the root cause,” Ibitoye said. “So why do you want to gain weight? Why do you want to be a bigger bum? Why do you want a more curvaceous figure? And what is it about these things that you think would make you happy? Or does it make you more successful?”
Ibitoye was just as critical of social media platforms like Instagram, which has been identified as one of the worst apps for mental health and self-esteem. The triggering effect of opening the app and constantly seeing one body type reinforced had “distorted some people's perception on what an ideal body size is,” she said.
The nutritionist called on individuals to take steps to “protect” themselves instead of opting for quick fixes. “The more you dwell on what is presented on social media and diet culture, you will see yourself being consumed and thinking that your current body size or body shape isn't ideal or desirable. That's where self-love comes into play.” ●