By Robert Preidt
Researchers analyzed data from more than 10,000 girls and women, aged 14 to 36, from 2001 to 2016.
Among those who initially did not have an eating disorder, 1.8% of those who used diet pills in the past year said they received their first eating disorder diagnosis over the next one to three years, compared to 1% of those who did not use diet pills.
The researchers also found that 4.2% of those who used laxatives for weight control were subsequently diagnosed with their first eating disorder, compared to 0.8% of those who did not use laxatives for weight control.
The study was published online Nov. 21 in the American Journal of Public Health.
"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 [disorder] diagnosis," said senior author S. Bryn Austin, a professor in the department of social and behavioral sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in Boston.
"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," Austin added in a school news release.
The researchers called for restrictions on access to diet pills and laxatives, which can cause serious health problems, such as high blood pressure, and liver and kidney damage.
According to study first author Jordan Levinson, "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." Levinson is 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," Levinson urged.