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Taking Dietary Supplements for Weight Loss May Be Dangerous

A recent study found that dietary supplements for weight loss may harm your health and that women in lower-income households are more likely to purchase them.


Many people want to mirror the advertisements depicting slim and trim, muscular, and sexually attractive people. To achieve that end, many men and women purchase dietary supplements for weight loss and related products they hope help them achieve such a look.

However, the United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) states that some dietary supplements have been found to be dangerous or ineffective. A 2012 study points out some of the facts and figures involved in the more than $37 billion U.S. annual dietary-supplement business.

Dietary supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbs and amino acids purchased without a prescription. The USFDA cites such products as dangerous and/or ineffective ones that may have been compromised with unspecified prescription drugs, chemicals or banned substances.

The recent study published in Preventative Medicine Reports examined dietary supplements for weight loss (WL), muscle building (MB) and sexual function (SF). The authors were associated with Harvard University, Simmons College and Boston Children’s Hospital of Boston, Massachusetts, and with Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.

The USFDA stated that the adverse health effects associated with WL products include cardiac arrhythmia and renal failure; MB products with testicular cancer and coronary artery disease; and SF products seizures and blood-pressure changes.

The researchers categorized each product individually, comparing purchases, purchaser’s age, head-of-household data and annual household (HH) incomes stratified from $30,000 to less than $100,000. They further extrapolated their numbers to examine purchases by educational level and among ethnic HH. Purchased dietary supplements were identified by their respective Universal Product Code.

In the study involving 60,538 American households. The researchers learned that HH with a female-only head tended to self-report purchasing more WL supplements, while male HH heads purchased more MB and SF supplements. Male-and-female HH heads reported middling levels of dietary-supplement purchases. Across the board, young people, aged 18-mid-30s, bought more of all types of dietary supplements; and tabulating data by gender, ethnicity and educational levels revealed that more Black and Hispanic women than men with lower educational levels bought dietary supplements than white HH.

As a study limitation, the researchers stated, “… in many cases we were unable to obtain precise estimates for sexual-function products, due in part to the relatively small sample of households with any purchases.” The added societal stigma may have influenced the self-reporting of SF products’ purchases.

As additional study limitations, the researchers stated that even with bracketed HH income and educational levels, the findings did not identify who in the HH was using each product. Also, they stated that in limiting the income thresholds studied, they generated results only by HH at a particular level.

A strength of the study was the thorough analysis of dietary-supplement purchases that revealed higher-income/educational HHs spent more money on dietary supplements but lower-income/educational HHs spent more on a percentage basis.

An additional strength is that this study was built on existing research in the field. Its authors hope their findings will chart greater roadways to “urgently needed” attention leading to increased regulation and consumer-protection measures.


Written By: Susan Mercer Hinrichs, MA, MBA, CPhT



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