The Center for Eating Disorders Blog

10 reasons NOT to introduce dieting during childhood & adolescence


Weight Watchers recently announced that it will offer free memberships to teens starting this summer. This announcement led to parents, physicians, dietitians and therapists around the world speaking out – and rightfully so – about the harmful effects of encouraging dieting in our kids. Why? Weight-loss diets have not been shown to provide any long-term health benefits.  Furthermore, dieting remains a major predictor for the development of eating disorders and worsens negative body image.

If you have kids or teens in your life that are feeling the pressure to diet or lose weight,  here are ten important facts and considerations to bear in mind.


1. Restrictive diets negatively impact children’s normal stages of growth and development. 

“Dieting is associated with potential negative physical health consequences. Nutritional deficiencies, particularly of iron and calcium, can also pose short- and long-term risks. In growing children and teenagers, even a marginal reduction in energy intake can be associated with growth deceleration1

2. Dieting is a major risk factor for the development of eating disorders. It can be hard to recognize eating disorders in teens or children, as many harmful attitudes about weight and food have become normalized in our culture. However, the problem is very real. And eating disorders don’t discriminate by gender, body type, ethnicity, or social status. According to Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Ph.D., in the U.S. alone, more than 50% of adolescent girls and 33% of adolescent boys have used unhealthy weight control behaviors. Even when such behaviors don’t develop into clinical eating disorders, they can still have a significant negative impact on physical and mental health.

3. Dieting disrupts children’s innate ability to eat intuitively. Dieting teaches kids to override natural hunger and fullness cues which can have lifelong effects.

4. Diets often rely on externally mandated measures of food or fullness which  undermine our innate ability to feed ourselves well. Using external systems such as “points” or other charts and arbitrary ways of monitoring food intake teaches kids to shut down or ignore their own internal regulatory systems (including hunger and satiety cues) and to mistrust their own bodies.

5. Focusing on weight is problematic as it is not a reliable measure of health. Furthermore, weight-focused discussion in and of itself is a risk factor for obesity and eating disorders.

“Several studies have found that parental weight talk, whether it involves encouraging their children to diet or talking about their own dieting, is linked to overweight and EDs.” 2

6. Dieting teaches kids to associate eating with feelings of guilt and shame as opposed to viewing food as fuel and energy.

7. Dieting negatively impacts body image. Weight fluctuations, common with dieting behaviors, often end up fueling the cycle of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating.

8. Findings clearly indicate that dieting and unhealthy weight control behaviors predict significant weight gain over time.3 Weight loss diets are actually associated with higher lifetime BMI.

9. Weight loss diets are associated with decreased metabolism, food preoccupation, and binge eating.4

10. Weight loss diets are associated with increased rates of depression and decreased self-esteem.5,6

Once we all understand the facts about how diets actually impact children (and adults), we can help families focus on implementing actual evidence-based strategies that we know are more likely to result in positive outcomes and healthier kids.

The question becomes: How can family members and friends best support our nation’s youth towards a peaceful relationship with food and positive body image without introducing potentially harmful diet routines?

Check out our next post, 8 Tips for Raising Body Positive Kids (Who are also competent eaters) for some basic ideas and strategies.

References:

  1. Dieting in adolescence
  2. Preventing Obesity and Eating Disorders in Adolescents
  3. Dieting and Unhealthy Weight Control Behaviors During Adolescence: Associations With 10-Year Changes in Body Mass Index
  4. Intuitive Eating Category: Studies
  5. Risk and protective factors for depression that adolescents can modify: a systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies.
  6. Losing weight won’t make you happy 

Contributors:
Rebecca Hart, R.D.
Caitlin Royster, R.D.
Rebecca Thomas, R.D.
Kate Clemmer, LCSW-C
Hannah Huguenin, R.D.