Students, faculty take action on unsafe dietary supplements

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Massachusetts may become the first state to regulate sales of dietary supplements marketed as weight-loss and muscle-building aids, thanks to a bill promoted by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. These products, which are not tested for safety by the federal government, have been linked to serious side effects including liver damage, heart attacks, and death. The new bill, now awaiting a vote by the Massachusetts Legislature’s Public Health Committee, would ban sales to minors and would also require retailers to move the products behind the counter for sale to adults.

Bryn Austin, director of the School’s Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders (STRIPED), spearheaded the effort. Austin, professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, joined with community partners at the Multi-Service Eating Disorder Association (MEDA) and the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) to gather research on the health risks posed by these supplements, as well as stories of those affected by their use and abuse. Their efforts impressed Rep. Kay Khan (D-Newton), who signed on to sponsor what became MA House Bill 3471.

Widespread access to these supplements is particularly risky for young people, who may be unable to weigh the potential side effects of these products, Austin said. Among teens nationwide, 11% have used weight loss supplements and 5% have used creatine, a supplement marketed for muscle building that has been linked with testicular cancer, according to STRIPED.