Study estimates nearly 10% of teens globally used unsafe weight-loss products

A recent analysis reveals that adolescents worldwide, particularly girls, have engaged in a significant level of non-prescribed drug, dietary supplement and other weight-loss product usage, News.Az reports citing Daily Sabah. 

After reviewing numerous studies spanning four decades, researchers estimate that approximately 9% of adolescents globally have used over-the-counter weight-loss products in their lifetime, with roughly half of them having used such products in the past month.

The most prevalent among these products were diet pills, used by around 6% of adolescents throughout their lives, followed by laxatives, which were used by about 4% and diuretics, used by approximately 2%.

These products are risky to both the physical and mental health of children, and they’re not medically recommended for healthy weight maintenance. Previous research has linked the use of non-prescribed weight-loss products to eating disorders, low self-esteem, depression and substance abuse in teens. They have also been associated with poor nutritional intake in adolescence and unhealthy weight gain in adulthood.

Dr. Paula Cody, medical director of adolescent medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, warned about the dangers of diet pills and supplements more than six years ago after hearing enough patients ask about supplements to lose weight or gain muscle, and the issue has only grown.

“The incidence of eating disorders has increased pretty dramatically after the pandemic. We’ve seen the numbers skyrocket,” she said. “So I do think that the concern I had before, which was not a small matter then, I’m even more concerned now.”

One study from 2022 found that hospital admissions for eating disorders among children in the United States grew 10 times faster in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic than in the years prior, and other studies have shown an increase in emergency department visits, too. The new study analyzed the use of diet pills and other weight-loss products in more countries than just the U.S., but prevalence was most common in North America.

When Cody is working with patients who have an eating disorder, she said she’ll sometimes see dramatic changes to their heart rate, blood pressure or sleeping patterns.

Some patients can stop taking the pills when they understand the negative health consequences they’re causing, she said. But for others, the eating disorder convinces them that their health is less important than the number they see on the scale.

“In a population who feel like they will do whatever it takes to get to lose weight, diet pills can be a very, very intriguing thing to add to the arsenal,” Cody said.

Childhood obesity is increasing worldwide. About 39 million children were obese in 2022, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In the U.S., childhood obesity is a “serious problem,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), affecting nearly one in five children ages 2 to 17.

But weight loss programs within the formal health care system are built to protect against some of the risks; that doesn’t happen when teens turn to diet pills or other non-prescribed weight-loss products, experts say.

“When patients are in that space where they’re feeling a bit more desperate to achieve weight loss, and they’re doing things unguided, undirected and opting toward less healthy choices, that certainly can lead to more problematic mental health behaviors or eating behaviors,” said Dr. Sarah Raatz, a pediatrician with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Pediatric Obesity Medicine.

“The new clinical practice guidelines (from the American Academy of Pediatrics) do mention that a structured program, like our clinic, where you are meeting with health care providers and dieticians and you’re getting a lot of guidance is actually going to be protective against that.”

There are no formal standards for how pediatric weight management clinics work, Raatz said, but patients in her clinic have appointments every couple of weeks or months. Mental health screenings happen at each visit, and a team of mental health professionals is available.

Patients and their families occasionally do ask Raatz about advertisements they saw for a supplement to aid in weight loss – things like apple cider vinegar gummies, she said – and she actively discourages it.

“I explain that it’s not regulated, (the benefits are) not evidence-based, it’s just not the way we would recommend going about treatment,” she said.

Still, the researchers of the new study write that it’s “alarming” how easy it is to access them, and “interventions are urgently required to prevent and regulate the use of weight-loss products in this population."


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