1 in 10 teen girls have used diet pills, laxatives or diuretics, study estimates

Eating disorders are a common chronic illness in adolescent females.

January 12, 2024, 3:45 PM

One in 10 adolescent girls are estimated to have used diet pills, laxatives or diuretics in their lifetime, according to a new study.

The study, published Wednesday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, analyzed over 90 studies with 600,000 participants around the world. The study's authors concluded that the findings suggest "interventions are required to reduce use of weight-loss products" in the population of teen girls.

"[The] use of nonprescribed weight-loss products in adolescents is a public health concern that is associated with negative physical and psychological consequences," the authors wrote.

Over-the-counter diet pills are often composed of supplements that have not been proven to help people lose weight in the long-term. Similarly, laxatives and diuretics do not help people lose weight in the long-term.

Prior research has shown that the use of diet pills is highly correlated with developing an eating disorder. Among U.S. young women, using diet pills and laxatives is associated with a higher risk of an eating disorder within 1 to 3 years compared to non-users, according to a study by the American Public Health Association.

PHOTO: Weight control pills are seen in an undated stock photo.
Weight control pills are seen in an undated stock photo.

Nearly 30 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

Among adolescent females, eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, which defines eating disorders as "serious and often fatal illnesses that are associated with severe disturbances in people's eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions."

Common types of eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, where someone may avoid or severely restrict the amount of food they eat; bulimia nervosa, where someone may overeat and then vomit or overexercise afterward; and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), an extreme version of picky eating, where someone is selective about the foods they eat.

Eating disorders can affect people of any age. New research has also shown that children younger than adolescents may engage in disordered eating behaviors, which can lead to eating disorders, according to the NIMH.

One study, published in 2022, showed that 5% of children -- both boys and girls -- engaged in binge eating, one of many types of disordered eating behaviors.

A more recent study, published last February, estimated 22% of children and adolescents showed disordered eating, defined in that study "as any behaviors such as weight loss dieting, binge eating, self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, and the use of laxatives or diuretics, although not to the level to warrant a clinical diagnosis of an eating disorder."

How to spot warning signs of an eating disorder

Parents may often be the first to notice disordered eating behaviors at home. Here are some symptoms to watch for, according to the NIMH.

  • A sudden change in appetite

  • Sudden avoidance of meal times

  • Frequent calorie counting

  • Overexercising

  • Poor body image or constant focus on weight or talk of weight gain or weight loss

What parents can do

If parents notice their child may be developing or already have an unhealthy relationship with food or weight, it is important to seek professional medical help, according to the NIMH. As a starting point, parents can begin by initiating a conversation with their child's pediatrician.

Treatment for eating disorders may include mental health therapy, medical care and monitoring, nutritional counseling and medications, according to the NIMH.

If you or someone you know is battling an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) at 1-800-931-2237 or NationalEatingDisorders.org.

Dr. Wheytnie Alexandre, a member of the ABC News Medical Unit, contributed to this report.