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Why children and teens should avoid dieting

Why children and teens should avoid dieting

In the USA, Weight Watchers (now known as WW) have launched a diet app for children aged 8-17 that is raising alarm bells for many dietitians, nutritionists and health professionals. The app, named Kurbo, claims not to be a diet, but instead it’s promoted as ‘building healthy habits for life’ through activities such as setting goals, tracking food with a traffic light system and tracking exercise.

Diets have well and truly fallen out of favour and weight loss companies are taking note. Last year, Weight Watchers ditched the ‘weight’ from its name and rebranded to WW. However, it’s still a weight-focused company under the guise of ‘wellness’. WW and Kurbo both steer clear of the word diet, but the characteristics of the Kurbo app are that of a diet. Children are asked to enter their weight, set goals (which include ‘make parents happy’ and ‘lose weight’) and track food and exercise – all things that scream ‘dieting’ to me.

While the app isn’t available in NZ, it is a good time to reiterate that dieting and weight talk for children and adolescents is not helpful, and likely to be harmful.

There is a body of research that links dieting efforts and weight talk to an increased risk of developing disordered eating behaviours and eating disorders. A 2016 report published by The American Academy of Pediatrics on ‘Preventing obesity and eating disorders in adolescents’ stated dieting and weight talk was linked to eating disorder development, disordered eating patterns and poor body image.

Recommendations in the report include discouraging dieting and focusing on healthy habits rather than weight. It also encourages more frequent family meals, avoiding weight talk and to promote a positive body image among adolescents.

As well as increasing the risk of eating disorders, dieting behaviours have been shown to be ineffective for reducing weight in the long term. A study published in 2002, investigating the relationship between dieting and weight in preadolescents and adolescents, found that not only was dieting ineffective, it may in fact promote weight gain. Other research has found similar results with a ten year study showing that both dieting and unhealthy weight control behaviours predicted weight gain over time.

Influences on weight are far more complex than just diet and exercise. There is also natural diversity in body size, and weight gain around puberty is a normal and expected part of development. It’s also important to note that children and youth have limited control over what food is purchased and offered in the home. Putting the responsibility on a child or adolescent to track their food intake and weight adds unnecessary stress on children and youth.

Socioeconomic status also plays a huge role in the access and availability of food for families. Addressing social determinants of health and reducing poverty are higher level strategies that play a part in reducing inequities in health.

Parents should promote balanced eating, actively share meals together as a family, increase access to fruit and vegetables, limit screen time and encourage enjoyable physical activity — habits that encourage wellness in all children and young people — without any need to focus on weight or body size, or get involved in dieting.

First published: September 2019

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