Even though teen girls’ bodies are supposed to develop and grow, the $76 billion weight loss industry is always looming, wanting to sell them snake oil pills and potions that are largely unregulated, potentially unsafe, and almost certainly useless. According to new research, more than six percent of teens in the United States have reported using some form of weight loss aid—be it diet pills, supplements, laxatives, and/or diuretics—in the past 30 days alone.
The study, published by the American Medical Association’s JAMA Network Open, found that teenage girls in North America are most likely to use diet pills in an effort to lose weight, with nearly 1 in 10 teens admitting to doing so that same month. That number is highest among girls and LGBTQ+ youth, who might not have direct access to gender- and body-affirming care.
Eating disorder specialists place blame on diet pill manufacturers, who prey on consumers — particularly teens—by way of social media. Amanda Raffoul, a specialist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Boston Children’s Hospital who works to prevent eating disorders, told The 19th that “if you open up any social media platform and do any sort of quick search for content related to weight loss or related to health and wellness, you’ll very quickly come across promoted content or advertisements for weight loss supplements.”
“I think that the dietary supplements industry has really taken advantage of the way that social media allows content and posts to be spread so quickly,” she added.
Social media is merely the latest tool in a decades-long line of advertising methods aimed at targeting our insecurities and promising to sell us something that will make us fit into a narrow beauty ideal (read: thin). But non-prescription pills and supplements are not only largely unregulated but potentially seriously dangerous, too.
Emphasizing the “really strong body of research evidence that shows that non-prescription dietary supplements for weight loss don’t work,” she added, “Unfortunately, it’s not surprising that there are such high levels of weight loss supplement use in adolescents and in girls in particular. The weight loss supplement industry is sort of the Wild West: It is incredibly unregulated. And because of that lack of regulation, the products are widely available everywhere for anyone to use.”
Plenty of people might believe that if something can be found over the counter or purchased online it’s safe, so it makes sense why teens might feel that way, too. “Most people assume that these products are natural, safe, and effective when the research evidence shows that none of those things are true,” Raffoul said.
Diet and weight loss culture preying on teenagers is especially insidious due to a trifecta of factors, as Nichole Kelly, the director of the Researching Eating and Nutrition to Enhance Wellness Lab at the University of Oregon and a psychologist who specializes in eating behaviors and body image beliefs, told The 19th. Kelly noted that teens’ developing brains and bodies, as well as heavy societal pressures to stay thin, can all contribute to this vulnerability. Peers are often “really harsh towards bigger bodies,” Kelly said, hearing from teachers an “ever-present anti-fat dialogue among their students — calling each other names, calling their moms names.”
“It is easy to understand, in some ways, why people, and in particular adolescent girls, can become desperate to lose weight,” Kelly said. It really says a lot about how larger bodies are portrayed and treated in real life and on social media.”
With prescription weight loss drugs like Ozempic and childhood obesity rates dominating the cultural conversation, as well as messaging teens are getting from social media and traditional media alike, it’s perhaps more important than ever to model weight-neutral behaviors, even when you think your kids aren’t paying attention. Eating disorders continue to rise, so being a safe, loving landing pad for your kids is vital to their self-esteem and overall health and well-being.