Teens and Diets: How They Can Backfire

Teens and Diets: How They Can Backfire

Teens who diet are more likely to gain weight or resort to dangerous behaviors when dieting. Learn how overweight teens can safely lose weight.

By Jenilee Matz, MPH, Staff Writer, myOptumHealth

Right now, about half of teen girls and one in four teen boys claim they're on a diet. It's no surprise that many adolescents believe that dieting is the key to a slender physique. Commercials for weight loss products are all over the TV, and "get slim" secrets flood the Web.

But the reality is that restrictive eating habits can backfire, and lead to unwanted pounds and dangerous habits.

The downsides of dieting
Some studies show that teens who diet to control their weight are more likely to gain weight in the long run than teens who don't diet.This is especially true when this group takes unhealthy actions to lose weight, such as skipping meals, fasting, severely restricting calories, or smoking cigarettes to control hunger. Weight gain is apt to occur whether or not the teen was at a healthy weight before the diet started.

Teen dieters may be more likely to pack on extra pounds for a few reasons:

  • Diets don't always work. In fact, most diets fail. People who diet often can't lose weight or maintain a weight loss over time. It's possible for people to lose weight despite - not because of - their dieting attempt.
  • Diets rarely last. People often view diets as a short-term fix. Once they start eating normally again, they may gain weight simply because they're consuming more calories than they were on the diet.
  • Dieting can lead to binging. Studies show that dieters are more likely to binge eat than people who don't diet. When people severely restrict calories, they may overeat at their next meal because they're so hungry. People may feel guilty after the binge, restrict calories again, and then overeat once more. This cycle continues, and the bouts of binging can cause weight gain.

What's more, teens who diet are also more likely to engage in risky weight control behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting or using diet pills, laxatives, or diuretics. Dieting may even foster eating disorders. According to one study:

  • Teen girls who diet to an extreme level are 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder.
  • Teen girls who diet to a moderate level are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder.

How teens can reach and keep a healthy weight
If dieting can be harmful to a teen's health, how can an overweight adolescent achieve a healthy weight?

First, talk to your child's doctor. Some teens think they're overweight when they're actually at a healthy weight. A doctor can also offer tips for how an overweight teen can meet weight-loss goals.

Adopting a healthy lifestyle is enough for many teens to reach and keep a healthy weight. Here's how you can help your child:

  • Offer sensible meals and snacks. Eat at home most of the time and save dining out for special occasions. Make sure your teen doesn't skip meals, especially breakfast.
  • Stock plenty of fruits and veggies. Also limit chips, cookies, and other processed foods.
  • Encourage water, low-fat or nonfat milk, or unsweetened drinks. Limit soft drinks and other sugary beverages.
  • Get the family active. Your teen should aim for 60 minutes of physical activity most days of the week. If you make exercise a priority, so will your child. Suggest activities for the whole family. Have a tennis match, train for a 5K race together or explore a new town by bike. Check with the doctor about a safe level of activity for your teen.
  • Teach your child to manage stress well. Adolescence is a trying time for everyone, and it can be tempting for teens to choose unhealthy stress-relievers. Instead, encourage your teen to ease stress by:
    • Getting eight to 10 hours of sleep each night
    • Participating in healthy activities that relieve stress such as reading a book, practicing yoga, or taking a walk
    • Talking about their struggles with someone they trust

Never suggest that your teen diet without a doctor's permission. Not only do most diets fall short, but the term "diet" suggests that eating well and exercising are only temporary. Lasting healthy habits are the key to lifelong wellness.

Sources:

  • Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. Healthy weight for teens. Accessed: 09/01/2010
  • Field AE, Austin SB, Taylor CB, et al. Relation between dieting and weight change among preadolescents and adolescents. Pediatrics. 2003;112(4):900-906.
  • Neumark-Sztainer D, Wall M, Guo J, Story M, Haines J, Eisenberg M. Obesity, disordered eating, and eating disorders in a longitudinal study of adolescents: how do dieters fare 5 years later? Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2006;106(4):559-568.

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