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Dietary supplements linked with severe health events in children, young adults

June 05, 2019

Key takeaways:

  • Compared with vitamins, dietary supplements sold for weight loss, muscle building, and energy were associated with nearly three times the risk of severe medical events in children and young adults.
  • Efforts aimed at reducing access and consumption of these types of dietary supplements, implementing proactive enforcement of regulations, and providing clear warnings at the point of purchase are needed.

Boston, MA - 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 to consumption of vitamins, according to new research led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The study found that, compared with vitamins, these types of supplements were linked to nearly three times as many severe medical outcomes 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. So what are the consequences for their health? That's the question we wanted to answer," said lead author Flora Or, a researcher with Harvard Chan School's Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders.

The study will be published online June 5, 2019 in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

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 to vitamins.

They found that there were 977 single-supplement-related adverse event reports for the target age group. Of those, approximately 40% 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 to vitamins. Supplements sold for sexual function and colon cleanse were associated with approximately two times the risk for severe medical outcomes compared to vitamins.

Senior author S. Bryn Austin, professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, noted that reputable physicians do not recommend the use of 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."
-end-
Yongjoo Kim of Harvard Chan School was also a co-author.

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.

"Taking Stock of Dietary Supplements' Harmful Effects on Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults," Flora Or, Yongjoo Kim, Juliana Simms, S. Bryn Austin, Journal of Adolescent Health, online May 20, 2019, doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2019.03.005

Visit the Harvard Chan School website for the latest news, press releases, and multimedia offerings.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health brings together dedicated experts from many disciplines to educate new generations of global health leaders and produce powerful ideas that improve the lives and health of people everywhere. As a community of leading scientists, educators, and students, we work together to take innovative ideas from the laboratory to people's lives--not only making scientific breakthroughs, but also working to change individual behaviors, public policies, and health care practices. Each year, more than 400 faculty members at Harvard Chan School teach 1,000-plus full-time students from around the world and train thousands more through online and executive education courses. Founded in 1913 as the Harvard-MIT School of Health Officers, the School is recognized as America's oldest professional training program in public health.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

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