What is weight loss medication and supplement misuse?
Diet pills (including prescription weight loss pills) and weight loss supplements are often referred to, but how many of us actually know what they are? These pills typically work by suppressing appetite or by reducing your body’s ability to fully absorb nutrients consumed. (1)
These products are also sometimes marketed with unsubstantiated claims that they’re able to burn body fat, eliminate sugar cravings, boost metabolism, improve mood, increase energy, promote lean muscle mass, and more.
Despite the fact that the FDA does not regulate over-the-counter diet pills and supplements, they can be readily purchased online and in a variety of brick-and-mortar stores. It's especially common to see pills and supplements for weight loss advertised when more people want to lose belly fat and look lean in the lead-up to Summer.
How are diet pills misused?
If a person wants to lose body weight quickly and is preoccupied with their weight loss goals, there is a risk that they may be irresponsible with the diet pills and supplements in the following ways:
- Combining multiple diet pills at once
- Taking prescription weight loss drugs without a doctor’s supervision
- Taking more than the recommended daily dose of a dietary supplement
- Combining diet pills with diuretics and/or laxatives
- Combining diet supplements with illegal stimulants, such as amphetamines or cocaine
How can medication misuse relate to eating disorders?
The promotion of weight loss supplements or diet pills as a way to lose weight can be directly connected to disordered eating. Given the pressure to lose weight within diet culture, these pills and supplements are sometimes advertised to capitalize on individuals’ desperation or insecurity.
Disordered eating behaviors take many different forms. As we live in a culture saturated with the dieting mentality, these behaviors can often slip under the radar, as they appear to be done in the name of health. Classic examples of this include orthorexia nervosa (OR), which is an obsession with “clean” eating, or exercise addiction, which is a compulsion to exercise in ways that become obsessive, excessive, or dangerous.
Gateway to eating disorders
However, diet pills and supplements are not all they’re cracked up to be. More and more research is revealing that the use of diet pills and weight loss supplements can serve as a gateway to eating disorders. A study in the American Journal of Public Health found that those who used diet pills or laxatives for attempted weight manipulation had a higher risk of being diagnosed with an eating disorder for the first time within three years. (2)
Researchers theorized that the use of weight loss supplements for attempted weight manipulation might lead to eating disorders by disrupting normal digestive function and fostering dependence on maladaptive and ineffective coping methods. Furthermore, taking diet pills can cause a person to hyper-focus on what their body looks like and what they eat, which can encourage disordered thoughts and behaviors.
Symptoms of eating disorders
Diet pill abuse can also be a symptom of eating disorders, used as a form of purging to compensate for calories consumed. In fact, these pills are believed to be used by up to many people living with an eating disorder. (1)
Researchers suggest that individuals suffering from eating disorders, as well as anxiety and certain personality traits, may turn to diet pills as a result of underlying issues with food, weight, and body size. (3)
Since those with eating disorders are already at a significantly increased risk for medical complications, abuse of diet pills can exacerbate these issues, along with the risk of side effects, tolerance and dependence, and withdrawal.
The connection between diet pills and diet culture
Think of how many sponsored posts from celebrities you see on social media for “skinny teas” or some other magical supplement alongside a beautifully posed (and photoshopped) picture of their “perfect” bodies—supposedly achieved in just a few short weeks without any side effects. This is all part of the toxic diet culture.
What you don’t see on these sponsored posts is that these celebrities are unlikely to have actually used the product or are even aware of what they are promoting. For example, actress Rebel Wilson is often associated with various weight loss supplements but has publicly denied any association with these companies.
With such misinformation, it’s perhaps not surprising that almost 25% of Americans have used diet pills and/or supplements to try and lose weight. (1)
Regular promotion on social media for any kind of weight loss pill or weight loss supplement and the fact that they are readily available in local grocery stores and pharmacies gives people the impression that they’re safe to use. This is categorically not true. Diet pills and supplements (even popular weight loss supplements) are not medically recommended for weight control and can be dangerous when abused.
The consequences of abusing weight loss supplements and medications
Diet supplements and weight loss pills often contain a dangerous blend of stimulants, herbs, and other ingredients that can cause toxicity and/or serious side effects. (3) Health consequences of diet pill and supplement abuse include (1,3,4):
- Anxiety and nervousness
- Rectal bleeding
- Electrolyte and mineral imbalance
- High blood pressure
- Heart palpitations and irregular heartbeat
- Restlessness and agitation
- Heart palpitations
- Hepatitis and liver damage
- Kidney problems
If a person is also taking prescribed medications, they can interact with the ingredients within diet pills, causing further adverse side effects.
Getting support for medication misuse
Talking to a healthcare professional is a great place to start if you’re worried about your use of diet pills or supplements. A healthcare professional can help you understand the reasons why you have such a negative view of your body shape and/or weight. They can also work with you or direct you to someone who can help you formulate a plan for how you can feel more positive about your body.
A healthcare professional can also perform an evaluation to determine whether your diet pill use has resulted in any health complications or is a symptom of a bigger problem, like an eating disorder.
Many eating disorder programs—including the virtual one here at Within Health—offer a multidisciplinary approach to treatment to help an individual withdraw safely from diet pills and supplements, stabilize any medical and/or psychological complications, and work towards long-term recovery from an eating disorder.
Final thoughts on weight loss supplements
It can be hard to feel comfortable in your own skin when you’re bombarded with the false and harmful message that “thin is healthy” or that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” If you’re struggling with body image issues, it is important to reach out for support rather than turning to dangerous and ineffective products in an attempt to lose weight. It’s important to address the deeper issues which these pills and supplements will never heal.
The widespread misinformation and lack of regulation concerning diet pills and supplements make them incredibly dangerous to those both with or without a tendency towards disordered eating behaviors. Overuse of supplements can result in the development of eating disorders or exacerbate existing conditions.
If you’re concerned about your use of diet pills and have issues with your body image and self-esteem, reach out for help. The support from experts who understand what you’re going through, you can learn compassion for your body and work towards recovering from your misuse of weight loss supplements/pills and co-existing eating disorders.