Nearly 10% of Children Have Tried Ineffective and Sometimes Dangerous Weight Loss Supplements

Young girls, particularly in the U.S., reported the highest rates of using nonprescription dietary supplements like laxatives and diuretics to lose weight.

Children around the world are becoming so concerned with body image that they are turning to over-the-counter weight loss supplements, which are often ineffective and potentially dangerous to their health, according to the findings of a new study.

Nearly one out of 10 adolescents use nonprescription weight loss supplements that may pose serious side effects, and have questionable or undisclosed ingredient, Australian researchers warn in a report published this week in the medical journal JAMA Network Open.

Nonprescription weight loss supplements include diuretics, laxatives, products containing high doses of caffeine, and products containing questionable or undeclared ingredients, and substances not approved or evaluated for safety by the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 90 studies including more than 604,000 participants from 25 different countries and six different continents. The research was published from 1985 to 2023 with 50 of the studies conducted in the U.S.

According to the findings, 8.9% of all youths between the ages of 10 and 19 said they used weight loss drugs at some point during their adolescence. About 6% of teens overall admitted to using weight loss supplements, like diet pills and laxatives, in the past year.

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In addition, 2% of youth said they used the products in the past week and 4% said they used weight loss drugs in the past month. Use was higher among teen girls, with nearly 10% of girls using diet pills or other weight loss products compared to 3% of boys.

Comparing data before the year 2000, after 2000, and after 2010, use of weight loss supplements increased over time.

Before 2000, roughly 5% of children said they used weight loss drugs. That increased to 10% after 2000, and has continued to rise, the researchers warned.

Weight Loss Pill Risks

Weight loss supplement risks can range from increased depression, poor nutritional intake, electrolyte imbalance, heart arrhythmia, seizures, palpitations, stroke, heart attack, liver damage, and substance use and abuse.

Dietary supplements, including weight loss pills, are responsible for more than 20,000 emergency room visits every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The FDA does not regulate dietary supplements the way it reviews and approves safety for prescription medication. The agency only intervenes when the ingredients include a controlled substance or there have been health problems linked to the product.

Roughly 6% of children and teens said they used diet pills, 4% said they used laxatives specifically, and 2% said they used diuretics. Laxatives and diuretics are not approved for weight loss. Laxatives are used to help promote bowel movement and diuretics help reduce fluid build up in the body, specifically to help kidney function and improve blood pressure. Using them for weight loss can be unsafe, the researchers warned.

Researchers said the use of weight loss supplements was much more common among teens in the U.S compared to teens in Europe and Asia. And teens in the U.S. often experienced more unhealthy weight loss control behaviors than teens in Europe.

“This meta-analysis found that use of weight-loss products occurs at high levels in adolescents, especially girls,” the researchers concluded. “These findings suggest that, given the ineffectiveness of these products for weight loss coupled with their harmful long-term health consequences, interventions are required to reduce use of weight-loss products in this group,”

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