January 18, 2024—Around the world, nearly one in 10 adolescents have used nonprescribed, medically unapproved weight-loss products, according to a new study co-authored by Bryn Austin, professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and director of the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders (STRIPED) at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The study was published on January 10 in JAMA Network Open.
According to Austin and her co-authors from Deakin University and Monash University in Australia, adolescent use of nonprescribed weight-loss products, such as diet pills, laxatives, diuretics, and “fitness supplements,” is associated with negative physical and psychological outcomes. But little has been known about how common usage is. In response, the researchers performed a meta-analysis of 90 articles comprising 604,552 participants younger than age 18. They found that 2% of adolescents worldwide have used nonprescribed weight-loss products in the past week, 4% in the past month, 6% in the last year, and 9% in their lifetime. Use was higher among girls than boys.
In a January 10 STAT News article about the study, the researchers noted that more than half of the studies analyzed were based in North America, and that more research is needed on the prevalence of nonprescription weight-loss products especially in Africa, South America, and the Middle East.
They also cited some recent examples of government regulation—such as New York state’s 2023 law banning the sale of diet and fitness supplements to minors—and noted that more interventions are needed to keep youth safe from products marketed online as health and wellness solutions.
“These industries are huge—they’re global industries—and they’re being promoted through social media, especially to target young people who use these products,” Austin told STAT. “It’s absolutely putting kids at risk.”
Amanda Raffoul, a researcher with STRIPED who was not involved with the study, echoed Austin in a January 17 article in The 19th. “Unfortunately, it’s not surprising that there are such high levels of weight loss supplement use in adolescents and in girls in particular,” she said. “The weight loss supplement industry is sort of the Wild West: It is incredibly unregulated. And because of that lack of regulation, the products are widely available everywhere for anyone to use.”