A new study has found that young women who use diet pills and laxatives to control their weight have higher odds of being diagnosed with an eating disorder.
“We’ve known that diet pills and laxatives when used for weight control can be very harmful substances. We wanted to find out if these products could be a gateway behavior that could lead to an eating order diagnosis,” said senior author Dr. S. Bryn Austin, a professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of STRIPED (Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders).
“Our findings parallel what we’ve known to be true with tobacco and alcohol: Starting harmful substances can set young people on a path to worsening problems, including serious substance abuse disorder.”
Using over-the-counter diet pills or laxatives is not recommended by health care providers as a healthy way to manage weight, the researchers said, noting there can be severe health consequences, including high blood pressure and liver and kidney damage.
Researchers added that using these products may serve as a “gateway” to further disordered eating practices by dysregulating normal digestive function and fostering dependence on unhealthy and ineffective coping methods.
For the new study, researchers analyzed data from 10,058 women and girls between the ages of 14 and 36 who participated in the U.S.-based Growing Up Today Study (GUTS) from 2001 to 2016.
They found that among participants without an eating disorder, 1.8 percent who used diet pills during the past year reported receiving a first eating disorder diagnosis during the next one to three years, compared to 1 percent who did not use the products.
They also found that among these participants, 4.2 percent of those who used laxatives for weight control received a subsequent first eating disorder diagnosis compared to 0.8 percent of those who did not use these products for weight control.
The researchers call for policies that restrict access to these products, including banning the sale of diet pills to minors.
“Our findings are a wake-up call about the serious risks of these products. Instagram took a step in the right direction recently by banning ads to minors for over-the-counter diet pills and ‘detox’ teas, which are often laxatives,” said first author Jordan Levinson, a clinical research assistant in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It’s time for retailers and policymakers to take the dangers of these products seriously and take steps to protect youth.”
The study was published in the American Journal of Public Health.