Laxatives and Weight Loss: Why New TikTok Trend Is Cause for Concern
Diet culture messages are often trending on TikTok, including recommended weight loss methods. The newest? Laxatives -- typically used to relieve constipation -- are now being falsely dubbed as “budget Ozempic.”
"Laxative abuse is a common method of purging among people with eating disorders," Elizabeth Wassenaar, MD (she/her), regional medical director at Eating Recovery Center, explains. "Excessive laxative use is a way they attempt to rid their bodies of calories by disrupting the absorption of nutrition consumed."
Here we dig into why laxatives are harmful and ineffective when taken for weight loss, how they affect the body and their deeper connection to eating disorders.
Experimenting with laxatives for weight loss
Though the use of laxatives for weight loss isn’t new, it has certainly made a comeback in the 21st century. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, laxatives were marketed as a solution for the discomfort that came with "bowel bloat,” which is essentially when children have stomachaches caused by constipation . Even today, they can be recommended for those who struggle with constipation and related discomfort.
Enter: diet culture, fatphobia and other systemic issues impacting how we perceive our bodies. It is now almost socially acceptable to repurpose many different medications, both over-the-counter and prescription, with the goal of weight loss. In fact, even Ozempic (which paved the way for this new “budget Ozempic” trend) is actually a type 2 diabetes medication that is being prescribed off-label for weight loss.
The reality is this: Not only is this trend harmful, it’s also not going to produce the intended results. Laxatives may give people a short-term drop in weight by helping them get rid of stool and some water weight. But it is important to remember that this change won't last, and it can pose significant risks.
Danger of laxatives for weight loss
Laxatives are meant to help with constipation by loosening the stool and stimulating a bowel movement. Using this method to try to lose weight is harmful.
Laxatives can have side effects, the most common of which are as follows:
- Electrolyte imbalances
- Digestive muscle weakening
These side effects can lead to long-term problems such as chronic constipation, a reliance on laxatives for bowel movements, as well as chronic diarrhea, nausea and gas. But that's not to say you shouldn’t touch these products if you truly are constipated; just be mindful of how you are using them.
"In people without an eating disorder, occasional use of over-the-counter laxatives is not problematic when used as intended. But for anyone, the chronic use of laxatives, even without any thoughts and behaviors associated with eating disorders, should prompt one to discuss their concerns with a medical professional," notes Dr. Wassenaar.
Laxatives and eating disorders
"Experimenting with laxatives as a weight loss tactic can have many negative outcomes. The biggest risk is the development of an eating disorder, which is a life-altering mental illness," Dr. Wassenaar says.
Using laxatives in an attempt to lose weight is risky and can lead to serious eating disorders, including bulimia nervosa. How? First, let's define bulimia.
What is bulimia?
Bulimia is an eating disorder marked by repeatedly eating large amounts of food in a short time (bingeing), and then trying to get rid of the calories consumed (purging). There are many forms of purging, such as:
- Self-induced vomiting
- Laxative misuse
- Diuretic misuse
Sometimes it's easy to miss that laxatives are a form of purging, mainly because of how the media has portrayed eating disorders, and specifically bulimia. But here's the deal: Using laxatives for weight loss is a form of purging, and it can lead to significant physical and mental issues. It might even pave the way for the development of an eating disorder. So it's crucial to be aware of these risks.
Long-term physical effects of bulimia include cardiac complications, dehydration, ulcers, tooth decay, digestive irregularity and other serious conditions.
Laxatives: A gateway to eating disorders?
A study with over 10,000 young women in the U.S. from 2001 to 2016 found an association between laxative use and eating disorders. Participants who used laxatives to lose weight were six times more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder within three years. Comparatively, those who reported using diet pills were about 5.6 times more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder in the same time frame. This demonstrates a strong connection between use of laxatives and the eventual development of an eating disorder .
Laxative use can pave the way for bulimia nervosa, anorexia binge-eating/purge type and other specified feeding and eating disorders. While the study above highlights young women, individuals of all genders and ages are susceptible to eating disorders.
"Loved ones may notice new or overwhelming concerns about weight, shape, size; they may notice their loved one say they are 'dieting' or 'getting healthy,’ and that these behaviors are consuming their time and energy in a harmful way," details Dr. Wassenaar.
Dr. Wassenaar outlines some of the signs of an eating disorder – bingeing and purging, specifically – for friends and family to watch out for.
Physical signs of an eating disorder
- Spending a lot of time in the bathroom, especially after eating
- Having laxatives, diet pills or empty pill wrappers among their things
- Complaining often about stomachaches, cramps or digestive problems
Emotional and behavioral signs of an eating disorder
- Showing signs of feeling down for a long time, such as being sad or losing interest in things
- Showing increased anxiety or nervousness, especially when it's time to eat or talk about food
- Pulling away from and spending less time with friends and family
- Getting easily annoyed or having mood swings, even with no clear reason
- Being secretive about eating or how they feel physically
How to help someone who might have an eating disorder
If someone you care about shows any of the above signs, Dr. Wassenaar offers some friendly tips.
- Approach them with support and empathy.
- Openly express your concerns about their well-being and the shifts you've noticed.
- Take the time to educate yourself about eating disorders and the treatment that’s available.
This "budget Ozempic" trend is already contributing to the mass misuse of laxative pills. We must address this by shedding light on the importance of early recognition and treatment of eating disorders.
If you or someone you know has concerns about eating behaviors, consider taking our "Do I Have an Eating Disorder?" quiz to gain insight, and connect with others who understand in our free community support groups. To learn more about treatment options available, call 877-825-8584 to speak with an experienced mental health professional today.
Read These Next:
- Bulimia: An Overview
- Anorexia Nervosa Subtypes: Restricting Type & Binge-Purge Type
- What Is Weight Stigma?
- Whorton, J. (2000, Dec.). Civilization and the colon. Constipation as “the disease of diseases.” Western Journal of Medicine, 173(6), 424-427. doi: 10.1136/ewjm.173.6.424
- Levinson, J.A., Sarda, V., Sonneville, K., Calzo, J.P., Ambwani, S., & Austin, S.B. (2000, Jan.). Diet pill and laxative use for weight control and subsequent incident eating disorder in US young women: 2001-2016. American Journal of Public Health, 110(1), 109-111. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2019.305390