Help! My Teen Is Consuming Fat-Burning Pills

In this image-conscious world, the pressure to look 'perfect' often hits teens the hardest. Looking good is equated with easy weight loss, leading to them buying diet pills online — a toxic cocktail.

By Divya Sreedharan

Help! My Teen Is Consuming Fat-Burning Pills
Consuming weight loss pills is risky behaviour in teens

Trupti is very worried about her 16-year-old daughter, Sheena. This past month, the teen has been erratic in her behaviour — very upbeat at times and then, moody or depressed and anxious. Also, the mother has noticed that the girl is not sleeping well, her eating habits have changed drastically and she seems to be losing weight.

Trupti is right to be concerned. But she doesn’t realise that her daughter has become extremely body-conscious, of late. The teen is convinced that she is ‘fat’ and yearns to be like her Instagram idol, Kylie Jenner (of the Kardashian fame). So, on a friend’s recommendation, Sheena ordered weight loss pills online three weeks ago. Now, she has been consuming two or three pills a day, in a desperate bid to lose weight and become as shapely as Kylie. That is the reason for her changed behaviour.

The dangers of diet or fat-burning pills

Diet pills, fat-burners or weight loss pills come in handy, pocket-sized containers that can easily be slipped into a school bag or satchel. Moreover, today these pills can be easily ordered online — no doctor’s prescription or age-proof required. The prices too range from Rs 110 and Rs 130, to upwards of Rs 3,000.

Like Trupti, are you also worried that your teen is consuming diet pills bought online? And do you know exactly why these are considered dangerous? According to expert nutritionist Ryan Fernando, there are different types of fat burner pills available today. "Some are hormonal based, with attributes on the thyroid and other estrogen systems in the body. A fat burner will either blunt appetite, raise metabolism or interfere with the hormones to cause greater thermogenesis (or cellular metabolism), to burn calories.”

He explains that no fat burner can help a user burn more than 400-500 calories a day. “The true essence is appetite suppression, meaning, you eat less. Also, these pills work by raising the heart rate, which can be actually detrimental to those with weak hearts. For instance, caffeine pills raise heart rate, increase metabolism and hence, calorie burn. But this could have the heart stressed out at very high levels, pumping out a lot of blood through the day — leading to high BP, palpitations and even, in severe cases, death,” Fernando cautions.

Wonderful or harmful?

Despite these dangers, the pills are quite often described as ‘weight-control’ or ‘weight-wellness’ capsules. There is no study or research in India on the long-term effects of these pills but such studies exist elsewhere. For instance, a popular ingredient in many pills is Garcinia cambogia (or vrikshamla), often described as a wonder ingredient that leads to quick weight loss and fat burn. But a 2016 study in the Journal ‘Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders’ has linked consumption to mania — a condition marked by periods of great excitement or euphoria, delusions and over-activity. Another 2016 study in the 'Annals of Hepatology' notes a case of acute liver failure associated with the use of Garcinia cambogia. It continues to be one of the most commonly found ingredients in weight loss pills available online.

Worse, teens often consume such pills, without thinking about the consequences, says Fernando. “A teen may end up taking one or two capsules of all products in the family of fat burners. If he sees results, he thinks that by incremental doses, there will be better results. So, he will increase dosage. But, if results are slow, he might think ‘It’s not working so, let me take more to get results'. That is a double edged sword,” he observes, adding, that most users take the pills without medical advice. 

Teens are especially vulnerable

It is not just teens who buy weight loss pills, adults do too. But teens tend to be especially vulnerable to such quick-fix remedies for weight loss. According to Dr Meghna Singhal, a clinical psychologist and parenting consultant at ParentCircle: “When you are a teen, your pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is still developing. That means, a whole lot of your executive functions, like decision-making and long-term thinking or planning, are still developing. So, teens are often not able to look at the long-term consequences. And, even if aware of those consequences, they are simply not able to apply them to their lives,” she explains. A teen's focus is on how it will make her look in the short term and she wants immediate results, observes Dr Singhal. 

At the same time, don't look at this behaviour in isolation, she says. “It will come at the end of a very unsuccessful cycle of constant dieting, exercising etc. not working. Diet and exercise are long-term things but can also lead to a lot of helplessness, she points out. 

Ryan Fernando agrees. “People who want to lose weight are actually desperate to lose weight,” he stresses. He adds that teens also tend to fall prey to other eating disorders — extreme starvation, bingeing, extreme dieting, so on. “Losing weight should involve a properly balanced exercise regime with a carefully controlled intake of proteins, fats, carbohydrates,” he explains.

The gender aspect

Do men and boys 'bulk up' using steroids, while women and girls like Sheena focus on 'slimming down'? Fernando says he has noticed more body image issues with women clients, who tend to focus on weight loss. “However, when it comes to fat burners, I find most women prefer the diet route, getting their nutrition in control by visiting a nutritionist. Men and boys end up joining a gym but do not pay that much attention or focus to diet. They are then exposed to bodybuilders/trainers who advise them to use protein supplements and fat burners, much against my recommendation,” he adds.

On her part, Dr Singhal believes there is a gender aspect to weight and body image issues. “Men and boys do tend to go for fat-burning and bodybuilding supplements while women/girls diet, follow fads, or binge and purge. In fact, purging is more common among girls than boys — that is what the statistics on eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia show,” she adds.

However, when it comes to teenagers like Sheena, there is also an another aspect to be considered. Sheena is consuming diet pills because she wants to look like her idol, Kylie. So, is social media use fuelling her behaviour? Dr Singhal has this to say: “All you see on social media are picture-perfect/filters and how ‘perfect’ you can look. This has contributed to the rise in eating disorders, increase in body shaming and a whole lot of fads. Psychologically too, it can play on young, impressionable minds. There is this whole pursuit to achieve unrealistically high standards of thinness or body shapes. But, we have always been obsessed with our image," she adds. 

So, what can parents do?

If, like Trupti, you have noticed there is something different about your teen, then be vigilant. Be aware of what is happening with your child. Watch out for changes in diet, appearance, erratic behaviour, so on. 

Here is what you can do: 

  • Ensure your teen sits down to family meals, so you can observe eating habits.  
  • A balanced diet is vital but diversity in food choices is also necessary.
  • Share your own teenage experiences with body-shaming or your attempts to lose weight.
  • Get active as a family, go on treks, make exercise a priority.
  • Why not sign up for a 5km run or walk, with your teen? 
  • If all else fails, seek professional help and counselling for your teen.  

We know it is very worrying when teens consume weight loss pills, but try not to overreact or become judgemental and confrontational. This will only alienate your teen and make her more secretive about dietary habits. Make sure your child knows your love is unconditional and that you are there not to scold, but rather, to support her wholeheartedly. 

Ryan Fernando is a celebrity sports nutritionist and the co-founder of Qua Nutrition. 

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