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Severe risks to physical and mental health are the dangerous side effects of society’s obsession with the “perfect body”. These risks include addiction, psychotic episodes, stomach ailments and eating disorders. Sadly, these obsessions and risks have led to rising incidences of abuse of weight-loss drugs.

Weight Loss Drugs For The Perfect Body

Healthcare professionals have raised the alarm on the long-term health impacts of misuse of weight-loss drugs. These drugs are taken in higher than recommended doses. Often times, they’re used without a prescription or proper medical care for planned weight loss.

Dr. Kate Mawson, a member of the South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP), spoke on the mental health of South Africans. She revealed that 45.3% of South Africans over the age of 15 being “highly dissatisfied” with their body size[i]. Globally, the numbers are just as alarming. 46% of individuals aged between 18 and 24 dealing with negative effects on wellbeing due to poor body image.

As a result of the high rates of poor body image, the risk of abuse of weight-loss medications is likely to be high. Dr. Mawson explains that the pervasive images of idealized beauty and social expectations to look a certain way played a role in people taking the use of weight-loss drugs too far, to the level of abuse. This has impacts on their physical and mental health.

“Some people, especially adolescents, young women, certain athletes and models, are under enormous pressure to be thin. This may lead to trying different substances, medications, diets, or behaviors to lose weight.  If these behaviors become a habit, then an eating disorder may result,” she said.

The Rise of Weight Loss Drugs

Dr. Mawson said misuse of prescription weight-loss medications, over-the-counter and so-called herbal weight-loss products, and off-label use of medications for other conditions all held the risk of various side effects. These side effects ranged from nausea, diarrhea, other gastrointestinal illnesses, and increased risk of heart disease, to insomnia, hallucinations, mood swings and heightened anxiety.

Globally, 1 in every 17 people aged 15-64 has used a drug in the past 12 months, whereas as many as 15% of South Africans struggle with drug addiction[ii]. Although the extent of addiction to prescription drugs, vs. illegal substances, is not well known, up to 7% of rehab admissions in South Africa are for prescription drug abuse.[iii]

Globally, almost 1 in 10 teenagers report using non-prescribed or medically unapproved weight-loss products, despite them being largely ineffective and potentially harmful.[iv]

A further problem is the use of medications for other conditions, such as ADHD, for their untested off-label side effects of appetite suppression and weight loss.

Just because a product promising weight loss is freely available over the counter at a pharmacy or health store does not necessarily mean it is safe, especially when used outside the recommended dose or method.”

The same goes for weight-loss medication prescribed by a doctor, or prescription medication obtained illicitly. If used beyond the recommended dosage or without the guidance of a health professional on a planned weight-loss program. There are risks of long-lasting adverse physical and mental health impacts that far outweigh the benefits of losing a few kilograms,” Dr. Mawson said.

Misusing weight loss drugs

Dr. Mawson said that misuse of weight-loss drugs could point to an underlying eating disorder that needs professional treatment, or the misuse of the drugs could in turn lead to an eating disorder, in either case “causing severe mental and physical suffering”.

Many of these medications are ineffective as weight-loss agents. Also, they may prevent you from seeking safe and approved care for weight issues.

“People may already have other mental health issues which underlie their desire to lose weight, such as an eating disorder, a mood disorder or a substance problem.  Misuse of weight-loss medications may exacerbate the issue or get in the way of them seeking effective mental health care and treatment for the underlying condition, with severe impacts on their overall health,” she said.

Some eating disorders carry very high physical risks for those who develop them, and are also associated with substantial psychological suffering and social dysfunction.

These are serious illnesses and should always be taken seriously – there is good evidence to show that the sooner a person gets help for the issue, the better their chance of having a full recovery,” Dr. Mawson said.

Tackling weight loss drugs

Dr. Mawson says that those who are concerned that their use of weight-loss drugs has become problematic, need help dealing with their body image or feel their weight concerns are heading towards an eating disorder. Those who are worried about a friend’s relative should seek help from a general practitioner, local clinic, or social worker.

Your GP or local clinic doctor can evaluate your physical health, advise on healthy and sustainable weight loss, or refer you to a mental health specialist for further evaluation and treatment.”


[i] Mchiza, Z.J., Parker, Wa., Makoae, M. et al. Body image and weight control in South Africans 15 years or older: SANHANES-1. BMC Public Health 15, 992 (2015).


[iii] SA Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use (SACENDU). Research Update, January – June 2023.

[iv] Hall NY, Hetti Pathirannahalage DM, Mihalopoulos C, Austin SB, Le L. Global Prevalence of Adolescent Use of Nonprescription Weight-Loss Products: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. JAMA Netw Open. 2024;7(1):e2350940. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.50940

[v] Vankar, P. (2023). People experiencing negative effects from body image by age group worldwide 2022. [online] Statista. Available at:

MAIN IMAGE CREDIT: Photo by Anna Shvet/Pexels
Em Sloane

Em Sloane

I am an introverted nature lover, and long time contributor to My role is to publish the information in a consumer friendly format, which we receive on the latest medical news, press releases and general information on the latest longevity related research findings.


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