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The Hidden Dangers of Over-the-Counter Weight-Loss Products for Adolescents

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In the face of an escalating global obesity crisis, many people, particularly teenagers, are turning to non-prescribed weight-loss products. These substances, often marketed as dietary supplements, are easily accessible and promise quick results. However, experts warn of their potential health risks and are calling for stricter regulations.

A Closer Look at the Prevalence of Non-Prescribed Weight-Loss Products Usage

Recent studies reveal a worrying trend – the widespread use of non-prescribed weight-loss products among adolescents, especially girls. According to a systematic review of 90 studies, approximately 9% of adolescents worldwide have used over-the-counter weight-loss products in their lifetime. Half of these users had consumed these products in the past month. The most common products include diet pills, laxatives, and diuretics.

Regional Differences and Gender Disparities

Interestingly, the prevalence of usage varies across regions and genders. The review found that the practice was most common in North America, with the United States leading at a prevalence rate of 6.1%. In contrast, Australia had the lowest rate at 1.6%.

Gender disparities are also evident. Females were significantly more likely than males to use these products. Almost 1 in 10 girls had used a weight-loss product in the past year, compared to only about 1 in 30 boys.

The Hidden Dangers of Non-Prescribed Weight-Loss Products

The indiscriminate use of non-prescribed weight-loss products poses both immediate and long-term health risks.

Short-Term Risks

In the short term, these supplements, especially those that act as stimulants, carry immediate cardiac risks. Once consumed, these substances can cause uncontrollable stress on the heart.

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Long-Term Risks

Long-term risks are even more concerning. Unhealthy weight control behaviors, including the use of weight loss products without a doctor’s prescription, can contribute to increased body weight. Additionally, these practices can put youth at risk for developing eating disorders within a few years. Studies have also found associations between the use of these products and low self-esteem, depression, and substance abuse.

The Role of Social Media and Influencers

Social media platforms like TikTok have amplified the reach and influence of these products. Influencers often promote them as ‘natural’ or ‘budget-friendly’ alternatives to prescription weight-loss medications. This form of marketing is particularly appealing to young people who may not have access to or afford prescription medications.

However, as Thomas Hildebrandt, the director of Mount Sinai’s Center of Excellence in Eating and Weight Disorders, cautions, these companies are “selling them a fool’s gold promise”. The promise of temporary weight loss is often at the cost of the users’ health.

The Urgent Need for Regulation and Intervention

In light of these alarming findings, experts are calling for more stringent regulations, particularly concerning the sale of these products to youths. Some countries have already started taking action. For example, New York State has banned the sale of diet and fitness supplements to minors. Similarly, the U.K. has prohibited the sale of stimulant laxatives to minors in retail settings.

However, these regulations are not enough. There is a pressing need for more evidence-based medical treatments for obesity. Such treatments would provide safe and effective alternatives to these non-prescription options.

The Role of Medical Practitioners and Parents

Medical practitioners and parents also play a crucial role in addressing this issue. They need to educate youths about the dangers of these products and promote healthier weight control practices. It is also essential to foster positive body image perceptions and encourage self-esteem among adolescents.


The widespread use of non-prescribed weight-loss products among adolescents is a growing concern. These products pose serious health risks and are not a sustainable solution for weight control. It is crucial for policymakers, medical practitioners, parents, and educators to take urgent action to regulate the sale of these products and promote healthier alternatives. Public education campaigns need to focus on raising awareness of the dangers of these products and promoting positive body image and self-esteem among youths.


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