More than one in 20 adolescents have taken non-prescription weight loss products, like diet pills or laxatives, in the past year, according to a new global study.
Among the general adolescent population, this rose to nearly one in 10 teenage children that had taken the diet aids in their lifetime, the study found, with girls “significantly” more likely to take them.
Diet pills were the weight-loss product used most frequently by adolescents, followed by laxatives and diuretics, according to the study.
The research was published in the JAMA Network Open – a monthly open-access medical journal published by the American Medical Association.
It was a round-up of 90 studies on 604,552 children aged 18 or under – and included research from the UK, Europe, North America, the Caribbean and Asia.
The area where use of weight-loss products was most common was North America, with Asia next, and then Europe. Other areas needed more research, the authors said.
The authors of the study, led by the School of Public and Preventive Health at Monash University in Melbourne, said: “Non-prescribed weight-loss products in children are not medically recommended for healthy weight maintenance as they do not work, are dangerous, are associated with unhealthful weight gain in adulthood, and increase the risk of being diagnosed with an eating disorder within several years of onset of use.
“Furthermore, childhood use of non-prescribed weight-loss products has been associated with low self-esteem, depression, poor nutritional intake, and substance use.”
They described the findings as a “public health concern” because there have been correlations found between the use of weight-loss products and girls who have low self-esteem or pressure from parents, peer groups, or social media to lose weight.
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Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at the eating disorder charity Beat, also warned that unprescribed medications worsen eating disorder behaviours and make recovery more difficult.
“We’re incredibly saddened and alarmed that so many children and young people have been able to access diet pills and laxatives,” he said.
“There’s an enormous pressure on young people to lose weight, and we often hear from people who are struggling with low self-esteem and body image as part of their eating disorder.
“Weight loss medications are very dangerous, especially if taken without a prescription, but the promise of ‘quick results’ is often very attractive to people with eating disorders even if it harms their health.”
Mr Quinn said there should be stricter laws to ensure weight loss products are “never sold to people with or vulnerable to an eating disorder”.