Diet supplements should never be used by children

Researchers find high number of deaths and hospitalisations linked to supplement use by young people. Nick Carne reports.

Diet supplements are popular among adults, but evidence suggests that children should avoid them.

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Dietary supplements are a dangerously bad idea for children and young people, a new US study suggests.

Whether used for losing weight, building muscle or boosting energy, they are linked with two to three times more severe medical outcomes than vitamins, according to researchers at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

Not surprisingly, this has prompted a call for greater efforts to limit their availability to young people, including warnings at point of sale.

Lead author Flora Or says the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued countless warnings about supplements, yet “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."

Or and colleagues looked at reports from between January 2004 and April 2015 in the FDA’s Adverse Event Reporting System (AERS), analysing the relative risk for severe medical events in individuals aged zero to 25 years who used supplements.

They found 977 such events, with about 40% involving severe medical outcomes, including death or hospitalisation.

Supplements sold for weight loss, muscle building, and energy were associated with almost three times the risk of severe medical outcomes compared to vitamins. For supplements sold for sexual function and colon cleansing, it was approximately twice as high.

Senior author Bryn Austin says reputable physicians do not recommend the type of dietary supplements analysed in this study, many of which have been found to be adulterated with prescription pharmaceuticals, banned substances, heavy metals, pesticides, and other dangerous chemicals.

Other studies have linked weight-loss and muscle-building supplements with stroke, testicular cancer and liver damage.

“It is well past time for policymakers and retailers to take meaningful action to protect children and consumers of all ages,” Austin adds.

The findings are published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

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