Experts are sounding the alarm about prescribing weight-loss drugs for children, warning that it could lead to abuse, malnutrition and a wave of body dysmorphia.
Researchers at the University of California at Irvine published an article This month, it was warned that drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy have not been studied long-term and prescribing them to minors may pose a risk to their future health because they are still developing physically and mentally.
These drugs bind to the GLP-1 receptor, which activates hormones in the brain to slow digestion and keep the stomach full, reducing cravings and the risk of overeating.
The drugs were originally approved for diabetes, but doctors began using them off-label to aid weight loss.
Wegovy was approved in 2021 for the treatment of weight loss in people 12 years and older.
Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics released guidelines on treating children with obesity, including a recommendation to use weight-loss medications, saying the medications have been shown to be safe and effective treatment options for children ages 12 years and up.
The AAP says that adding these drugs to a weight-loss regimen, such as changing your diet and increasing physical activity, could help combat childhood obesity, which can lead to serious health problems.
The organization stated that obesity is one of the most common chronic diseases facing children between the ages of 2 and 19, affecting one in five children.
Despite this recommendation, California researchers are particularly concerned about how the reduction in calories resulting from the use of these drugs might affect children’s growth and development.
The American Academy of Pediatrics said obesity is one of the most common chronic diseases facing children ages two to 19, affecting one in five children.
The researchers described several unintended harmful consequences that could arise in children taking weight-loss medications.
The balance between diet and physical activity in childhood influences growth and health throughout a person’s life.
With adequate levels of caloric intake and physical activity, bone mineralization increases, which decreases the risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures in the future.
Any deviation from healthy levels of eating and exercise, the researchers said, can negatively affect children and adolescents as they grow, possibly leading to increased inflammation associated with heart disease.
“Our primary concern is the imbalance and inappropriate reductions in caloric or energy intake associated with these weight-loss medications,” said Dr. Dan Cooper, one of the paper’s authors and a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the College of ICU medicine.
“Unlike adults, children and adolescents need sufficient energy and calories not only for physical activity, but also for growth and development.”
Self-esteem and self-image are especially fragile during adolescence, and social media exposure to unrealistic body types and dietary culture plays a significant role in shaping a child’s own body image.
The study team is concerned that prescribing weight-loss drugs to children and adolescents could lead to abuse because these ages are a “particularly vulnerable period for the development of self-esteem and satisfaction with one’s appearance.”
Abuse among patients with diagnosed eating disorders or those who participate in competitive sports that place pressure on body weight, such as wrestling, gymnastics, and ballet, is also a real risk.
The potential for abuse was compounded by closures enacted during the Covid-19 pandemic. Researchers say stay-at-home orders exacerbated childhood obesity and limited physical activity.
“The benefit-cost ratio (financial and quality of life) of long-term use in young people needs to be carefully studied,” said Jan D. Hirsch, co-author and dean of the UCI School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
‘With the rise of social media, young people are already exposed to a diet culture and body images that can be unattainable and ultimately unhealthy.
“These medications given without proper supervision could cause a minefield of health and emotional problems in children as they grow up,”
While the researchers did not discuss this in their article, there have been numerous and well-documented cases of these weight-loss drugs causing suicidal thoughts, depression, severe vomiting, and stomach paralysis in adults taking them.
Clinical trials are conducted to study the safety and efficacy of new drugs. However, enrolling younger patients in weight-loss drug trials is challenging.
Challenges for clinical trial enrollment include access to a trial site, excluding comorbidities or pre-existing conditions, and recruitment.
Without longitudinal research to study the impacts of drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy throughout a child’s life, there is no way to document their potentially harmful side effects.
The researchers aren’t denying that the drugs could help children with morbid obesity and type 2 diabetes. That doesn’t lessen their concerns about “inevitable” overuse and abuse, however.