Consumption of dietary supplements for weight loss and muscle building has been linked to nearly three times the risk for severe health outcomes in children and young adults, including disability, hospitalization, and even death, as compared to vitamins, according to a new study by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
The study aimed to evaluate the relationship between supplement categories and adverse events in children, adolescents, and young adults. The researchers looked at adverse event reports between January 2004 and April 2015 in the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) "adverse event reporting system" on the food and dietary supplements database.
They analyzed the relative risk for severe medical events 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. Severe medical events include death, disability, life-threatening events, hospitalization, emergency room visit, and/or required intervention to prevent permanent disability.
"The FDA has issued countless warnings about supplements sold for weight loss, muscle building or sports 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," says lead author Flora Or, a researcher with Harvard Chan School's Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders, in an institute release.
Over 11 years, 1,392 adverse events were reported to the FDA among individuals (0 and 25 years) as a result of consuming one or more dietary supplements. The research team found that there were 977 single-supplement-related adverse event reports for the target age group.
Of those, approximately 40% involved critical medical consequences, including death and hospitalization.
The findings, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, says: "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. It is important to keep in mind that vitamins, although used as a reference group in this study, were also linked with adverse events that merited reporting to the FDA."
According to the paper, the dietary supplement market is projected to generate approximately $57 billion in revenue by 2024 in the US. Dietary supplements are consumed by 52% of the US population, including 9% of infants aged younger than one year, it adds.
Many dietary supplements sold for weight loss, muscle building, sexual function, and energy, have been found to have misleading labels and to have been adulterated with dangerous ingredients, including "undeclared prescription pharmaceuticals, steroids, kava, and germander", which can lead to liver damage and other health harms, according to the paper.
"Our findings support the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that dietary supplements are dangerous and should not be used for weight loss and muscle building purposes. The emergence of increased risk for severe medical outcomes due to supplements sold for muscle building and energy in adolescence suggests opportunities for age-specific intervention to reduce consumption of these products by age 11 years," say the authors in the paper.
The researchers caution that while the FDA's repeated warnings on the potential harm of dietary supplements are necessary, but they are not sufficient to keep children, adolescents, and young adults safe.
Many individuals, according to the researchers, remain uninformed about the potential harm of dietary supplements due to misinformation on the package. "As the dietary supplement industry continues to grow, efforts aiming at reducing access and consumption, implementing proactive enforcement of regulations, and providing a clear warning at the point of purchase are paramount in preventing severe medical outcomes among children, adolescents, and young adults and consumers in general," they recommend.