Consumption of dietary supplements sold for weight loss, muscle building, and energy was associated with increased risk for severe medical events in children and young adults compared with consumption of vitamins, according to new research led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The study, published today in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that these types of supplements were linked to nearly three times as many severe medical outcomes as vitamins in young people.
“The FDA has issued countless warnings about supplements sold for weight loss, muscle building or sport performance, sexual function, and energy, and we know these products are widely marketed to and used by young people,” said lead author Flora Or, a researcher with Harvard Chan School’s Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders. “So what are the consequences for their health? That’s the question we wanted to answer.”
The researchers looked at adverse event reports between January 2004 and April 2015 in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Adverse Event Reporting System on the food and dietary supplements database. They analyzed the relative risk for severe medical events such as death, disability, and hospitalization in individuals aged 0 and 25 years that were linked with the use of dietary supplements sold for weight loss, muscle building, or energy compared with vitamins.
They found that there were 977 single-supplement-related adverse event reports for the target age group. Of those, approximately 40 percent involved severe medical outcomes, including death and hospitalization. Supplements sold for weight loss, muscle building, and energy were associated with almost three times the risk for severe medical outcomes compared with vitamins. Supplements sold for sexual function and colon cleansing were associated with approximately two times the risk for severe medical outcomes compared with vitamins.
Senior author S. Bryn Austin, a professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, noted that reputable physicians do not recommend the type of dietary supplements analyzed in this study. Many of these products have been found to be adulterated with prescription pharmaceuticals, banned substances, heavy metals, pesticides, and other dangerous chemicals. And other studies have linked weight-loss and muscle-building supplements with stroke, testicular cancer, liver damage, and even death.
“How can we continue to let the manufacturers of these products and the retailers who profit from them play Russian roulette with America’s youth?” Austin said. “It is well past time for policymakers and retailers to take meaningful action to protect children and consumers of all ages.”
This study was funded by the Ellen Feldberg Gordon Fund for Eating Disorders Prevention Research and the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders. Yongjoo Kim of Harvard Chan School was also a co-author.