Eating Disorders and Co-Occurring Diet Pill Abuse

Woman in straw hat

Eating disorder behaviors take many different forms, some more apparent than others. While we live in a culture saturated by the dieting mentality, many disordered eating behaviors often go unnoticed, as many individuals claim to be doing certain things in the name of health.

With an “obesity epidemic” that has been sadly misunderstood, a general fear of being fat or overweight may trigger many individuals to engage in dangerous or risky behaviors.

The abuse of diet pills can co-occur with eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, and can lead to many potentially disastrous consequences.

Overview of Diet Pills

Diet pills are typically sold over the counter, though there are some forms of diet pills that are prescribed by certain health professionals.

Despite how accessible they are to the public, it is important to know that over-the-counter weight loss pills are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In fact, federal regulators have identified products advertised as diet supplements which contain substances unapproved for use in the United States. Even weight loss pills that are FDA-approved will still involve risk with use and many unwanted side effects.

Diet pills or any weight loss medications work in a couple different ways, either by reducing your body’s way to fully absorb nutrients consumed or by suppressing appetite. These substances are often marketed with outrageous claims of being able to control sugar cravings, increase energy, elevate mood, burn fat, boost metabolism, and more.

However, most of these supplements have not actually been tested or have any significant scientific support backing these claims, especially over-the-counter pills that are not approved by the FDA. Diet supplements and weight loss medications often contain a dangerous combination of stimulants, herbs and more, which can potentially interact to produce risky side effects or toxicity in the body.

Diet Pill Abuse and Co-Occurring Eating Disorders

When it comes to eating disorders, diet pills are often abused in order to compensate for calories that have been consumed. Other individuals may turn to diet bills in attempt to maintain body weight or even for weight loss, though this is hardly the result of taking diet pills.

Woman sitting outsideResearch has demonstrated the abuse of diet pills by individuals with eating disorders, with prevalence estimates as high as fifty percent [1]. Since individuals with eating disorders are already at severe risk for medical complications, abuse of diet pills can exacerbate these consequences as well as increase risk of side effects, tolerance, and withdrawal associated with abuse [2].

Research has also identified a connection between diet pill use in individuals with eating disorders and vomiting/purging behaviors, caffeine use, and increased BMI [3].

One particular study also found that people with eating disorders who have abused diet pills also tend to have certain personality traits and characteristics, as well as other mental health disorders, like anxiety disorders, borderline personality disorder, and alcohol abuse or dependence [3].

Researchers have hypothesized that individuals with eating disorders who are both impulsive and anxious may turn to diet pills and/or other substances as a response to underlying anxiety about food, body, and weight gain [3].

Compromised health related to side effects from an eating disorder may increase risk for side effects experienced by diet pills, including nervousness, insomnia, high blood pressure, restlessness, fatigue, heart palpitations, congestive heart failure, heart attack, disruption in menstrual cycle, renal failure, stroke, headaches, gastrointestinal distress, hallucinations, convulsions and more.

If an individual is already taking other prescribed medications, diet pills and the substances within can interact, causing further adverse effects.

Seeking Out Comprehensive Care

Woman in gray sweaterIn short, diet pills, particularly supplements that may be purchased over-the-counter, may seem harmless on the surface. However, abuse of these pills, especially when co-occurring with an eating disorder, should never be taken lightly, and professional intervention should be sought immediately.

Many eating disorder treatment programs do offer comprehensive approaches to help an individual safely withdraw from diet pills, stabilize any medical/psychiatric complications, and promote long-term recovery. Furthermore, given the frequency of diet pill use in individuals with eating disorders and the ease with which these substances are obtained, screening for diet pill use should be a routine part of treatment in order to adequately address this concern.


Crystal Headshot 2About the Author: Crystal is a Masters-level Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) with a specialty focus in eating disorders, maternal/child health and wellness, and intuitive eating. Combining clinical experience with a love of social media and writing, Crystal serves as the Director of Content and Social Media for Eating Disorder Hope/Addiction Hope, where her passion to help others find recovery and healing is integrated into each part of her work.

As a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, Crystal has dedicated her career to helping others establish a healthy relationship with food and body through her work with EDH/AH and nutrition private practice.


[1]: Celio CI, Luce KH, Bryson SW, Winzelberg AJ, Cunning D, Rockwell R, et al. Use of diet pills and other dieting aids in a college population with high weight and shape concerns. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 2006;39:492–497
[2]: Shekelle P, Morton SC, Maglione M. Ephedra and Ephedrine for Weight Loss and Athletic Performance Enhancement: Clinical Efficacy and Side Effects. Evidence Report/Technology Assessment No. 76. Rockville,MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; 2003.
[3]: Reba-Harrelson, L., Von Holle, A., Thornton, L. M., Klump, K. L., Berrettini, W. H., Brandt, H., … Bulik, C. M. (2008). Features Associated with Diet Pill Use in Individuals with Eating Disorders. Eating Behaviors, 9(1), 73–81.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on May 13, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on May 9, 2017.
Published on