It’s no secret that we live in a culture that has a less than positive track record when it comes to bodies, weight and nutrition — especially for women. And, in a culture that prioritizes thinness so frequently over wellness and positive body image, it’s no surprise that a number of people resort to ill-advised tactics to reach those ideals, especially when they’re accessible and normalized.
A new study published in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), out of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Boston Children’s Hospital, found that young women who reported using supplements like diet pills or laxatives to control their weight were more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder within one to three years than their peers who didn’t use those products.
“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,” Senior Author S. Bryn Austin, professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard Chan School and director of STRIPED (Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders) said in a statement. “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.”
This would make sense given how common disordered eating is in the U.S. alone. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, at least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S
Taking a look at data from 10,058 women and girls between the ages of 14 and 36, researchers found that the .8 percent more of participants (that didn’t previously have an eating disorders) who reported using diet pills to control their weights reported receiving that diagnosis within one to three years. Likewise, 4.2 percent of the participants who said they used laxatives for weight control reported being diagnosed.
Researchers say that their findings are “a wake-up call” for there to be increased attention on how these products are sold and how accessible they are to minors (since many are over the counter products). They also cited Instagram’s decision to ban ads to minors for OTC diet pills and detox tea products (which are mostly laxatives) as a step in the right direction.
“It’s time for retailers and policymakers to take the dangers of these products seriously and take steps to protect youth,” Jordan Levinson, clinical research assistant, Division of Adolescent Medicine, Boston Children’s Hospital said.