Eating disorders are ravaging young people

We can help by ending supplement industry's stranglehold on impressionable youth

AN EATING DISORDER epidemic is growing. Clinicians are seeing eating disorders in children at younger and younger ages, and now, due to the pandemic, eating disorders among teens are at an all-time high and related emergency room visits are on the rise. What isn’t being talked about enough, though, is how more can – and must – be done to prevent eating disorders.

This is personal.

As a Team USA figure skater, I have experienced intense pressures to look a certain way since I began skating at the age of 8, and these pressures have only intensified as I’ve progressed and reached higher levels of competition. Eating disorders and body-image struggles are extremely prevalent in the sport of skating, and it’s a toxic culture full of body shaming and unhealthy weight-loss practices.

Thinness and leanness, at times, are valued over people’s actual health and well-being, with coaches and judges perpetuating harmful ideals and practices. I have seen simply drinking “detox teas” escalate into using products like laxatives, ultimately resulting in bingeing-and-purging behaviors. Anorexia, specifically, is the most common eating disorder that skaters struggle with, and I have seen it end people’s careers and contribute to injuries, illnesses, and other co-morbidities and mental health disorders.

When I was just 17 years old, I moved away from home to pursue my sport at a higher level. My new training environment was intense, competitive, and placed lots of different pressures on the skaters – the majority of whom were minors. It would have been so easy for me to wander into a pharmacy or convenience store and purchase one of these products, especially without the parental supervision I normally had at home. Thinking about this, even in hindsight, frightens me immensely. I feel fortunate that I never bought diet pills or muscle-building supplements to try and change my body – but the pressure and temptation was certainly there. Now, knowing how dangerous these products are, having seen the physical and mental harm they did to friends and peers, and thinking about how much they would have set me back, it is very upsetting to think about how easy it is for kids to get their hands on them. That is why I feel an intense duty to protect current youth as well as future generations.

Thankfully, Rep. Kay Khan and Sen. Michael Rush have introduced bills (H.2331/S.1525) to prohibit the sale of over-the-counter diet pills and muscle-building supplements to minors. I, along with many of my peers, parents, and physicians across the state have been imploring the Massachusetts Legislature to pass this critical protection for youth.

Most people don’t understand or fully grasp just how harmful these products can be, how vulnerable minors are to developing an eating disorder, and how much young people are being targeted by a predatory industry. I and those younger than me have grown up in the digital age, with a constant barrage of added body-image pressures from social media – deeply affecting both boys and girls. Kids as young as 13 years old are being targeted with social media ads for extreme weight-loss products.

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The diet and supplement industries have a stranglehold on impressionable, young consumers and it needs to end immediately. These products offer a slippery slope to eating disorder development, perhaps forming the beginnings of one or fueling one that is already underway. According to a recent study, young women who reported using diet pills are nearly four times as likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder within just a few years after starting to use diet pills compared to those who do not use them. What’s more, weight-loss and muscle-building supplements are so under-regulated that they often go to market containing toxic ingredients, including undeclared and banned pharmaceuticals.

Under the status quo, more than half a million Bay Staters will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. The deception of weight-loss and muscle-building supplements is pervasive, yet no proactive measures have been taken to ensure youth are protected from these products. Changing the law in Massachusetts would do more than simply protect minors. It would elevate the issue of eating disorder prevention at a critical time and open people’s eyes to the deceitful nature of these supplement manufacturers.

Ryan Dunk is a senior at Suffolk University studying psychology and a figure skater for Team USA. He is part of the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders (STRIPED), and a research intern in the eating disorder program of Boston Children’s Hospital.