The Need for Education on the Dangers of Diet and Muscle Building Supplements

It is essential that schools modify their curriculum to include lessons on the adverse effects of over-the-counter weight loss and muscle building supplements.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Whether it came from an adult, friend, health class, or school assembly, almost every child has gotten the talk about vapes, drugs, and other harmful substances. However, many children are woefully unaware of the adverse effects that weight loss, muscle building, and other dietary supplements can have, pointing to a clear lack of education on the subject.

A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that side effects of dietary supplements were responsible for an estimated total of 23 thousand emergency department visits per year. These side effects can include sleeplessness, kidney problems, rectal bleeding, liver damage, and more. These supplements, which are available over the counter and considered to be alternatives to prescription pharmaceutical drugs, are overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Currently, no safety testing or FDA approval is required before a supplement is sold in stores, allowing more than 55 thousand products into the market. Additionally, companies are not required to list harmful side effects on the product packaging, ensuring that many who use these products are unaware of the risks associated with their usage.

To address the issue at hand, my team at the International Socioeconomics Laboratory (ISL), in partnership with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders (STRIPED), conducted a study to gain further insight into the use of these products among youth. Using a Google Form, we surveyed a total of 1,518 respondents from Massachusetts, California, and New York aged 12 to 22 to attain a clearer understanding of how the youth population in the United States is affected by how easy it is to purchase these products.

In terms of supplement usage amongst the respondents, our team found that 23.3 percent, 22.1 percent, and 34.6 percent of youth respondents from Massachusetts, New York, and California, respectively, have used over-the-counter diet pills, detox teas, or other weight loss supplements. Across the respondents who reported use of these products, 48.2 percent started using them when they were under 18 years old. Evidently, this issue poses a great risk to youth across the United States.

In regards to education about the potential dangers of supplementation, we found that 91.2 percent of respondents have spoken with an adult about the dangers of tobacco, vaping, alcohol, or drug use in the past two years, whereas only 25 percent of respondents had discussed the danger of weight loss or muscle building supplements in the same time frame. It is essential to fill this gap through modification of curriculum in schools.

There are multiple pathways to address this issue. In New York State, all students are required to take Health Education, which adopts various forms in elementary, middle, and high schools. In this system, students are required to have at least one lesson about HIV/AIDS annually. Adding topics on the negative effects of supplementation to this curriculum would help alleviate the present education gap. In addition, organizations such as the FDA and other national agencies should release factsheets and other resources to increase awareness.

Through the support of ISL, alongside STRIPED and the Finxenrunt Policy Institute (ISL’s sister organization), bills addressing this issue have been presented and are in the process of passing in the New York State Senate and California Assembly, while the New York State Assembly is currently in the deliberation process. These regulations include the prohibition of the sale of such supplements to minors, which is a great step in ensuring that minors do not suffer from the side effects of these products. These regulations are not yet fully encompassing, as they do not require companies to list the side effects of the supplements they are selling. Regardless of the soon-to-be-placed regulations, minors may find a way to continue purchasing these products or will simply purchase the supplements once they turn 18. In these cases, education is the only way to successfully mitigate the high usage rate among youth.

The burden of education cannot only fall upon the shoulders of legislators and educators. It is also up to the youth population to educate themselves and join the effort to educate others. Without individual collaboration across the country, we will not be able to make our voices heard and find an effective solution, whether it is through participation in research programs such as the ISL, reading up on the side effects of these supplements, educating peers, or contacting our legislators. Together, not only can we ensure that these toxic products are regulated, but we can also make sure that every child is well aware of the adverse effects of diet and muscle building supplement usage.