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A growing number of young people are turning to nonprescription “budget Ozempic” alternatives for weight loss that don’t work and can pose serious health risks. Maskot/Getty Images Maskot/Getty Images
  • A new study has found that 1 in 10 teens have used over-the-counter (OTC) products to lose weight.
  • The products studied included diet pills, laxatives, and diuretics.
  • In addition to potential health risks, OTC weight loss products are often not backed by research.
  • Experts say a balanced diet and exercise are the best ways to lose weight.

Drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy have become increasingly popular. However, they can be expensive and may not be readily available, especially for teens.

In response, a growing number of young people are turning to over-the-counter options (some of which are being referred to as “budget Ozempic” on social media) in their efforts to lose weight.

According to a January 2024 meta-analysis in JAMA Network Open, nearly 1 in 10 teens worldwide have used nonprescription diet products at some point during their lives.

Additionally, 2% of those studied reported having used a weight loss product within the past week.

Usage was more commonly reported among girls.

Diet pills were the most often used as a weight loss aid. Laxatives and diuretics were the next most popular.

The study further found that the use of weight-loss products was more common in certain geographic areas. Usage was highest in North America when compared to Asia and Europe.

However, the authors noted that more research is needed in Africa, South America, and the Middle East.

Devika Bhushan, MD, a physician and public health leader, said it’s important to be aware that, to shed pounds, young people may use unhealthy methods, including diet pills, laxatives, diuretics, and others.

“Disordered eating and unhealthy purging and weight loss behaviors are at an all-time high,” she noted, “and as a pediatrician and public health practitioner, I’m very worried about adolescent use of nonprescription weight loss products.”

Bhushan went on to state that using these products can lead to greater weight in adulthood, poor nutritional intake, eating disorders, low self-esteem, depression, and substance use.

“Longer-term, these practices can contribute to malnutrition, stunted growth and development, and unhealthy consequences for most bodily systems and processes,” she added.

Bhushan additionally explained that while certain products may be widely promoted, their claimed benefits are not based on high quality evidence.

They also do not generally provide sustainable or healthy weight loss and may come with dangerous side effects.

Bhushan further noted that, although obesity is a common chronic health condition in childhood and adolescence affecting 14. million people in the U.S. alone, it is important for families to work with their child’s pediatrician to help them create a safe and healthy plan to treat their condition.

“This includes a holistic approach that recognizes that obesity results from a complex interplay between biological and environmental factors,” she said. The plan should consist of “balanced nutrition, including increasing fruits and vegetables, while reducing processed foods, sugar, and unhealthy fats, and incorporating regular exercise.”

Although there are numerous over-the-counter weight-loss products on the market, the three that were covered by the study included diet pills, diuretics, and laxatives.

In addition to those three, Healthline also asked Trent Carter, FNP-BC, CARN-AP, a Nurse Practitioner at Curednation — about psyllium husks and berberine, which are being touted online as nonprescription alternatives to GLP-1 weight loss drugs.

Here are the potential health risks each of these products can pose and why they may not aid with sustainable weight loss.

Diet pills

“Diet pills often claim miraculous results because they can increase metabolism or reduce appetite,” said Carter. “However, these pills are not safe to take as there is no scientific evidence to support their efficacy.”

He further noted that their use includes several risks, including increased heart rate, high blood pressure, and negative impacts on mental health.

“Their long-term use can even lead to dependency and nutritional deficiencies,” explained Carter.

Diuretics

Diuretics are drugs that make you urinate more. They can be used to treat conditions such as high blood pressure and heart failure.

According to Carter, people often use over-the-counter diuretics because they can cause temporary weight loss due to the water that’s lost.

“Their improper use can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances and adversely affect kidney function,” he noted.

Laxatives

Laxatives, which can induce a bowel movement, are often used to treat constipation.

Carter said people can mistakenly think they are a “quick fix for weight loss.” However, the weight lost simply comes from solid and liquid waste products, he said.

“Their regular use can cause dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and dependency issues,” Carter added. “Their misuse can lead to gastrointestinal problems and damage to the colon.”

Psyllium husks

have been claimed to be an “Ozempic alternative” since they can increase a person’s feeling of fullness.

“While fiber is essential for digestive health, relying solely on psyllium husks for weight loss is ineffective,” Carter remarked. “The potential risks include digestive discomfort, gas, and bloating.”

They can also reduce the absorption of certain medications like lithium, certain antidepressants, digoxin, diabetes medications, bile acid sequestrants, and carbamazepine.

Berberine

“It [berberine] is derived from various plants and has become popular due to its potential impact on metabolism,” said Carter. “However, there is limited evidence supporting its efficacy.”

It’s often referred to online as “nature’s Ozempic,” however, there’s little evidence that it can aid with weight loss.

Carter further noted that it can interact with certain medications and may cause side effects such as gastrointestinal issues and allergic reactions.

A partial list of drugs that berberine may interact with includes metformin, losartan, and dextromethorphan.

According to a new meta-analysis, nearly 1 in 10 adolescents worldwide have used nonprescription weight loss products that can pose health risks at some point during their lives.

The products studied included diet pills, laxatives, and diuretics.

These products can cause a wide range of health issues, including disordered eating, electrolyte imbalances, and drug interactions.

Additionally, they may not have solid research backing their effectiveness.

Experts say a holistic approach is the best for weight loss that includes a balanced diet and exercise.