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Harmful dieting on the rise in teens

Teen girls on steps looking depressed

Dieting to lose weight is on the rise among teens and many are overestimating their weight, according to a new UK study.

The rate of 14-year-old girls and boys trying to lose weight increased from 30 per cent in 2005 to 42 per cent in 2015, research recently published in JAMA Pediatrics shows.

And girls who are trying to lose weight are also more likely to experience symptoms of depression than in previous years.

Dieting ineffective and potentially harmful

Lead author Francesca Solmi says the increase in dieting among young people is concerning because, on top of being ‘generally ineffective’ for weight management, dieting can harm mental health and is a strong risk factor for the development of eating disorders.

“Our findings show how the way we talk about weight, health and appearance can have profound impacts on young people’s mental health, and efforts to tackle rising obesity rates may have unintended consequences,” Dr Solmi says.

Exercise for fun, not weight loss

The researchers reviewed data from 22,503 UK adolescents and found 44 per cent had dieted to lose weight and 60 per cent had exercised specifically for weight loss, compared with 38 per cent and 7 per cent, respectively, of participants in 1987.

Senior author Praveetha Patalay says more young people also appear to have weight loss as their motivation for exercise, rather than fun or socialisation.

Boys under more pressure to diet

The increase in dieting for weight loss over the past three decades was even greater for boys than girls, the researchers say.

“Societal pressures for girls to be thin have been around for decades, but body image pressures on boys may be a more recent trend. Our findings underscore the impact that societal pressures and public health messaging around weight can have on children’s health behaviours, body image and mental health,” Dr Patalay says.

Unintended consequences of obesity messaging

The usual body image pressures from media portrayals of thinness have been added to by the rise of the fitness industry and social media, the researchers say, and public health messaging around obesity may be causing unintended harm.

“Public health campaigns around obesity should consider adverse mental health effects, and ensure they avoid weight stigma. By promoting health and wellbeing, as opposed to focusing on ‘healthy weight’, they could have positive effects on both mental and physical health,” Dr Solmi says.

8 ways to encourage a healthy relationship with food

At Healthy Food Guide we recommend dropping the focus off weight when it comes to how you talk to children and teens about food and exercise. Instead, you can encourage healthy behaviours by, first, modelling them and, second, providing an environment that supports good choices.

  1. Try to avoid diet talk or being negative about your own or other people’s appearance. Talk, instead, about the great things bodies can do such as dancing, painting, climbing or kicking a football around
  2. Avoid demonising foods. There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods. There are just foods that you need more of to fuel your body and brain well, and those that are to be enjoyed occasionally for fun and flavour. Both are part of a healthy diet. Focus on what to include more of in a healthy diet, not what to exclude
  3. Sit down at the table for as many distraction-free meals as possible. This is a great place to model healthy eating, catch up over the day’s events and make it easier to tune into hunger and fullness cues
  4. Talk about food in terms of health and flavour, not calories. Make it fun and interesting. Focus more on the foods that are great to eat
  5. Avoid using food as a reward
  6. Find physical activities to enjoy as a family. Playing games outside is a great way to spend time together and makes exercise about fun and socialisation
  7. Encourage eating breakfast every day
  8. Keep plenty of nutritious options in sight such as a fruit bowl on the table, nuts on the counter and yoghurt at eye level in the fridge
  9. Involve kids in cooking from a young age. Give them the skills to prepare nutritious meals and foster a love for cooking from scratch, so they feel empowered and develop a healthy love for food

Article sources and references

Date modified: 3 December 2020
First published: Nov 2020


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