Why is it not a good thing?
Given that a significant number of people are overweight and our society’s current outlook on body image is that we’re supposed to be thin, it’s no wonder that most of us have tried dieting at some point. A surprising fact is the number of teenagers who are dieting. This can have long-term negative consequences. What are these consequences? What’s important to know when talking to your teen about food, dieting and body image?
Everywhere you look there is advertising telling you to change yourself. One of the strongest messages is that you need to be thin because thin people are beautiful, happy and in control of their lives. Typically, these messages also tell you that in order to become thin, you must lose weight and they offer a quick fix solution. These instant fixes promise results that are usually impossible to achieve. As an adult, all of these messages are hard enough to deal with, but when you’re a teenager, it’s even worse. When you’re a teen, it’s normal to feel self-conscious, especially about your body. So, when they see these messages about being thin, it can cause them to constantly feel bad about their body, worry about their weight or feel guilty when they eat. All of these feelings aren’t normal or healthy. Seeing these messages encourages them to use extreme measures to get the “perfect” look. A report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) found that, from 2013 to 2016, around 38% of American adolescents between 16 to 19 said they had tried to lose weight during the past year. The NCHS data showed that over 75% of adolescents with obesity tried to lose weight, so the rise in childhood and adolescent obesity likely plays a role in the increased number of teens who are dieting. If you break the data down by gender, 45% of girls and 30% of boys have tried dieting. While the data demonstrates that weight-loss attempts outpaced increases in adolescent obesity during the study period, obesity rates among adolescents between 12 and 19 rose from 18.4% to almost 21% from 2009-2010 to 2015-2016. The NCHS data also proves that when teens try to lose weight, they mostly rely on traditional tactics with over 83% saying they had tried exercise in hopes of losing weight and around 50% said they had consumed more water and less food. Girls are especially vulnerable during adolescence because their body shape changes and becomes more rounded as it transitions to being an adult. Results from a survey done by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that the majority of 5th- through 12th-grade girls were dissatisfied with their body shape and two-thirds wanted to lose weight, even though less than a third were overweight. With dieting and weight concerns being so prevalent in our culture, it’s easy to see that many non-obese children have issues with them. If teens don’t feel good about themselves, they’re more likely to diet. When compared with teens who don’t diet, teens who do are more unhappy with their weight and say they ‘feel fat’ even if they are not. Many pediatricians have reported seeing increasing numbers of teens with anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder.
The problem with weight and dieting isn’t something that just effects teens when they’re young. A study published in Obesity Science and Practice observed that teens, especially those who began struggling with their weight early in life, are more likely to internalize weight bias and stigma. One long-term study found that girls and young women who start dieting at a young age are more likely to struggle with eating disorders, alcohol problems or obesity as adults. Teens who diet generally have lower self-esteem, feel less connected to their families/friends and feel less in control of their lives. Often, they turn to dieting to try to change their body and feel better about themselves rather than being concerned about their health. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work because dieting actually can cause people to gain weight. This is because when you go without the foods you enjoy, it makes you feel deprived and sad, which frequently leads to overeating. Also, when dieting you feel hungry all of the time and become preoccupied with food. When you’re not eating enough, you are more likely to be distracted, tired, unmotivated, cold and dizzy. While dieting in general isn’t good for you, some forms can even be dangerous, like skipping meals, using weight loss pills/laxatives, going on ‘crash’ diets or vomiting after eating. Another aspect is sports, teens in certain sports may feel pressure to lose weight or body fat, which can lead to unhealthy weight-control practices, such as using weight pills/laxatives, cutting back on water intake or exercising too intensely.
Teens are still growing and need the right amount of nutrients to be healthy, which is why any of these “solutions” can be so risky. When teens eliminate entire food groups or take in too few calories, it can have serious negative effects on their health. Also, when you restrict your food intake, you typically end up gaining more weight over time because your body is trying to prepare so it can live through the next “famine.” Not eating enough or not eating regularly can actually slow down your metabolism, making it harder for your body to burn calories and fat. Also, if you don’t eat enough, your body can develop vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. All of these combined is why skipping meals can actually lead to weight gain. Another thing that teens try is severely limiting their diet for short period of time to quickly drop weight before a special event and then return to normal eating after. This is called yo-yo dieting and also slows your metabolism. It can decrease your energy levels, too. Recent research exposes that repeated yo-yo dieting can increase your risk for serious heart problems. There are many fad diets that teens try, like fat-avoidant or protein-but-no-carbs. These can actually be unhealthy for the developing brain. From the time you’re born until you’re 26, you need 50 to 90 grams of fat per day to have optimal brain development. Also, fad diets usually promise that you’ll lose weight quickly can, especially those that are restrictive, but they rarely work long term and can cause health problems. Another thing that is common for teens to try are “diet foods.” These are foods and beverages that are marketed as “diet-friendly.” Unfortunately, many of them are packed with artificial sweeteners, unhealthy fats and other ingredients that aren’t good for your body.
The key to not only losing weight, but being healthy is to set realistic goals you can do every day and that focus on improving health, not body weight. It’s vital to remember that calorie needs are often higher during the teenage years than any other time of life since it’s a period of rapid growth and development. On average, boys need 2,800 calories a day and girls need 2,200 calories a day. The other factor is activity levels. It’s usually broken down into three categories. Minimally active means the person is not active and only move for tasks needed for daily life. Moderately active means the person engages in activity needed for daily living and activity that is equivalent to walking 1.5 to 3 miles daily (30 to 40 minutes). Active means the person engages in activity needed for daily life and activity equivalent to walking 3 or more miles daily (more than 40 minutes). Once you know what your caloric needs are, the next most important thing is to eat a wide variety of foods every day, especially those that are whole, unprocessed, filling and nutrient-dense (high in the amount of nutrients, like vitamins, minerals and fiber). Make sure you get several servings of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, protein and fats. It’s key to not get rid of fats completely, but to swap unhealthy fats, such as deep-fried foods and sugary baked goods, with healthy fats, like nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil and fatty fish. Healthy fats can actually promote weight loss in a good way. The body uses carbohydrates in vital ways, too. In order to build glycogen, the kind of energy you need for endurance, teens need to consume carbs within the first 20 minutes after finishing a workout that is 90 minutes or longer. Foods that are high in cereal fiber, like bran, wheat and rye (cereal or cereal bars), are good carbs. Vegetables contain a significant amount of nutrients and powerful compounds called antioxidants, which protect your cells from unstable molecules (free radicals) that can cause damage. They also have fiber and water, which helps you feel full and more satisfied. Instead of soda, coffee or juice, choose water. Calories and sugar from beverages other than water add up quickly. Several studies show that high amount of added sugar consumption can lead to weight gain in teens and increases their risk of certain health conditions, like type 2 diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, acne and cavities. Also, most foods that are high in added sugars are low in protein and fiber. This can cause your appetite to fluctuate, which can lead to overeating throughout the day. Stay properly hydrated by drinking enough water throughout the day because it’s critical for overall health, can help you maintain a healthy weight by regulating your appetite and decreasing the urge to snack when you’re not necessarily hungry. Don’t skip meals, particularly breakfast. It’s your body’s first meal after sleeping all night, so it needs fuel to give you energy as you start your day. Control your portion sizes by making sure to eat only when you are hungry and stopping before you feel full. If you get to the point of feeling full, then you’ve overeaten. This is essential to remember when at restaurants because most of them, especially fast food places, have larger portions that have a ton of fat, salt and sugar. Not just restaurant, but most processed foods are high in calories and low in essential nutrients. This is why it’s important to cut back on processed foods. Learn a few cooking skills can make it easier for you to cook at home. This is helpful because if you can make your own meals, you’re less likely to eat out. Also, you’re more likely to prepare healthier meals and better control how much you eat.
Besides eating healthy, there are several other things to consider. Obviously, physical activity is crucial, but you don’t have to join a sports team or a gym to become physically fit. The point is to sit less and move more, which you can do by getting involved in active hobbies, such as gardening or social causes. Another component is to get enough sleep. Numerous studies show that adults who don’t get enough sleep weigh more than those who get the recommended 7-8 hours per night. Since teens need even more sleep than adults, around 9-10 hours, it’s critical that they get enough. In order to do this, ensure that your bedroom is dark and avoid distractions, such as TV or smartphone, before bed. Reduce stress is another important factor because it causes hormonal changes, like elevated levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which can increase hunger and promote weight gain. To reduce stress, participate in activities, for instance yoga, meditation, gardening, exercise and spending time outdoors. Also, spending time every day doing something you enjoy with people you enjoy can help decrease stress. Make sure you don’t use food as a way to make yourself feel better when you are bored, sad or upset. Instead, practice mindful eating, which means paying attention to your food as you’re eating in order to develop a better relationship with eating, body awareness and food regulation. This can help decrease impulsive food choices. One of the biggest things is to not compare yourself to others because feeling pressure to look a certain way can mess with anyone’s body image.
Our society’s default is to feel embarrassed or ashamed if you or your child are not the ‘correct’ size or shape. Unfortunately, this has led to parents encouraging their children to diet. When doing this, most parents focus on a child’s weight or point out that their stomach is fat. Families who do this are also more likely to tease one another about weight or openly talk about each other’s weight. Individuals who receive encouragement to diet from their parents are more likely to do it with their own children. The problem is that adults who were pressured by their parents to diet when they were teens can have a higher risk of obesity and eating disorders as adults than people who weren’t urged to lose weight as teens. Also, these individuals are more likely to be overweight/obese, more likely to be dieting/binging and to have lower body satisfaction. Some children with certain personality traits, like perfectionism, are more vulnerable.
Eating disorders, like bulimia, anorexia and binge eating disorder (BED), can impact people of any age. Unfortunately, it often develops during the teenage years. While signs of eating disorders vary depending on the type, some warning signs to watch for include constant or repetitive dieting, avoidance of social situations that involve food, evidence of vomiting or laxative abuse, excessive exercise, obsession with body shape and/or weight, social withdrawal and isolation, frequent avoidance of eating meals or snacks and drastic weight loss or gain. Anorexia can be a life-threatening condition. It’s caused by an obsession with thinness leads to severe dieting and excessive weight loss. Teens who are anorexic may become obsessed with fat and calories, exercise compulsively, feel out of control, lie about food and suffer from mood swings, depression, or anxiety. With bulimia, the individual stuffs themselves with food and then purges it by vomiting or abusing laxatives and/or diuretics. A teen who is bulimic might have some of the same symptoms as an anorexic, but may not lose much weight and may actually appear healthy. Other common signs of bulimia are hoarding food and using the bathroom frequently after meals. Binge eating disorder causes obesity because the teen overeats as a means of coping with psychological problems but doesn’t purge afterwards. On the other end of the spectrum, you have a subset of teens with a disorder that some people call orthorexia, or addiction to overly healthy eating. These individuals are obsessed with making sure what they’re eating is healthy.
If you’re a parent, it can be a challenge to make sure your teen is eating right since they often eat away from home. This is why family dinners are a good thing to fit into your schedule as often as possible. It not only promotes family communication, but gives you a better chance to observe your children’s eating habits. Another an important habit is to keep your kitchen stocked with healthy snacks instead of junk food. Also, don’t comment on your child’s eating habits or weight and don’t get into power struggles with them over what and how much they eat. If your child is trying to lose weight, you should be concerned if they successfully meet their weight goal but then keeps upping the goal, their friends express concern, they’re secretive or defensive about dieting, they worry about weight increases even though they’ve successfully lost pounds or, for girls, their periods stop. If you are concerned about your teen’s weight or relationship with food, seek guidance from a registered dietitian, nutritionist or physician. If you’re talking to your teen about weight, the key is to talk about the health benefits with a focus on how healthy eating and regular physical can help everyone in the family be stronger physically and live longer lives. It’s essential for teens to have healthy role models and to understand that everyone has a different body type—the vital thing is to be healthy.
With the continuing rise in youth obesity rates, the increased efforts by teens to lose weight isn’t translating to weight loss. This should be a clear signal that we, as a society, need to think about the systems and environmental drivers of obesity. In order to have meaningful reductions in adolescent obesity, it will require better physical activity and nutrition programs at schools, more moderate use of technology and substantive efforts from the food industry to improve the nutrition quality of food. It’s essential that teens understand that having a truly healthy body doesn’t mean hitting a certain weight or fitting into a certain size. For parents, they need to know that body image can be positive or negative and usually has little to do with actual appearance. Since parents are the most influential role model in a teen’s life, it’s important for them to teach healthy body image by being a positive example.
Typically, when we hear the words, ‘going on a diet,’ we usually think about eating less or eating differently to try to lose weight. However, going on a diet can mean making some good choices about nutrition. The key thing is to concentrate on achieving slow, consistent, healthy weight loss over time to reach a point that the individual is at a healthy weight. Teens are particularly vulnerable to messages about their bodies and will often try to ‘fix’ themselves unless they have the proper guidance.