Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Understanding Teen Dieting and Weight Loss

By Anitta Philip, MD
Pediatric Resident at The University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School
Member, Texas Medical Association

We’re creating a culture that idolizes an impractical and thin beauty standard through the rise of social and mainstream media, Photoshop and photo filters, and advertisements for fad diets and weight loss products pushed by social media “influencers.” According to the Pew Research Center, 71% of adolescents say they use more than one social media website and are exposed to these ideals repeatedly. Teens also consume health information that isn’t based on scientific evidence but rather on an influencer’s personal experience with a trending diet or product (posted for that person’s own social and financial benefit). These attempts to restrict food and to focus on weight loss can have lifelong consequences on teenagers’ physical and mental health.

How can dieting be harmful?
Although dieting can help teens achieve weight loss, rapid change in caloric intake and restriction can put a them at risk for nutritional deficiency, menstrual abnormalities, bone loss, arrhythmias (improper beating of the heart), irritability, fatigue, binge eating, poor self-esteem, and an eating disorder. Research suggests dieting can also have a reverse effect on teenagers: weight gain! In a 2003 study involving more than 15,000 children aged 9 to 14 years, those who restricted themselves from certain foods lost weight temporarily but ultimately gained more excess weight over time compared with the children who did not diet.

Is your teen at risk?
Girls are more likely to engage in unhealthy dieting to achieve
weight loss, according to a 2003 study from The American
Academy of Pediatrics.
Many of the tweens and teens in the study reported wanting to lose weight; it was a bigger concern for the females. While all are prone to being dissatisfied with their body in some way, girls are more likely to engage in unhealthy dieting. Other risk factors include being overweight, having a negative body image, having a mental health disorder such as anxiety and depression, parental dieting or parents urging the teen to diet, and weight teasing from family members or peers. Consider, too, that most patients with eating disorders were not previously overweight, though one study showed that one in three of those adolescents seeking treatment for an eating disorder had the highest body mass index (a body mass index greater than 85% of kids the same age and sex). Thus, parents of children who are overweight or obese must also be mindful of eating habits and harmful eating habits their children may exhibit.

What behaviors should be concerning?
Warning signs to look for that may suggest a more serious disorder – regardless of your child’s weight – include chronic and/or fad dieting, excessive exercising, fasting, skipping meals, inducing vomiting, or taking laxatives or diet pills.

How does communication about weight loss and dieting affect children?
A long-term study of adolescents who were encouraged to diet showed years later a higher risk of obesity, binge eating, disordered eating, and body dysmorphic disorder (a disorder in which a person constantly worries about a perceived defect in his or her physical appearance). Additionally, it found that these same participants encouraged their own children to diet, creating an unhealthy cycle.

How can you help your teen?
The American Academy of Pediatrics lists these interventions to address obesity and eating disorders:
  1. Discourage dieting, missing meals, or use of diet pills. Instead, promote healthy eating and physical activity that is sustainable over time. Try to incorporate these lifestyles into your family’s daily routine.
  2. Support positive body image and avoid using body dissatisfaction as the purpose for dieting.
  3. Implement frequent family meals. Research suggests families eating together eat more fruits and vegetables and other essential nutrients compared with families who didn’t eat together. Studies also show family meals also protect girls from acting upon eating disorders.
  4. Avoid talking about weight. According to several studies, parental discussions about weight, whether encouraging their children to diet or talking about their own dieting, is tied to overweight and eating disorders. Shift the focus of the conversation to healthy eating habits and being active. Studies found when parents followed this approach, their overweight or obese teen was less likely to diet and use unhealthy approaches to losing weight.
  5. If your teen is overweight, talk about whether he or she is bullied or treated poorly by peers.
  6. Monitor your child’s weight loss to ensure it is not too much too fast, which could signal a more serious problem such as an eating disorder.  
Teens in today’s society face mixed messages on what health and beauty should look like. Having them understand the dangers of those messages can prevent them from falling into unhealthy habits and instead be more aware of what makes a healthy lifestyle.  

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