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The Dieting Dilemma Facing Teens

By on August 27, 2013


In my practice I am often struck by how young some of the adolescents are who walk through my door – either on restrictive diets or struggling with an eating disorder. Our society floods our minds with images of the “ideal” body and with endless myths about nutrition and what “healthy” means. It becomes hard to ignore the pressures to diet in an effort to control our body weight and shape. For teens this pressure can be overwhelming. This is especially true when they feel peer pressure to diet, or when they live with family members who are dieting; perhaps encouraging them to do the same. It is rare that I counsel a teen who cannot recall at least two of their friends or family members who are on a diet – dieting is everywhere and it is having a significant impact on our youth’s mental and physical health.

Dieting Doesn’t Work

Young women and men feel an increased pressure to turn their bodies into what society tells them is beautiful – “being thin”. As teens attempt to mold their bodies to match those found in popular media, their inability to do so can dampen their self-esteem and fuel poor body image. This drive to be thin has caused many teens to turn to extreme measures of dieting, and in some cases eating disorders develop.

It has been shown that body dissatisfaction and dieting in adolescent years may predict physical and mental health issues later in life, including the development of eating disorders. Additionally, studies have found that teens who take part in weight change behaviours (i.e. dieting) are more likely to be obese later in life. At a very young age, teens are drawn into the never-ending cycle of dieting to try to control their weight for much, and sometimes all, of their life. Aside from being dangerous to their overall health, diets do not work. The majority of individuals, roughly 95%, who lose weight on a diet will regain the weight within five years. This cycle is difficult to break and often leads to weight gain over time. This continuous focus and battle with weight only further fuels the poor self-esteem and body image that many teens face.

In Need of Nutrients

Teen years are a vital time for growth and development. For this reason, when individuals restrict their intake during this period of their lives major health consequences can occur. When a teen goes on a diet, or purposefully restricts their intake of food, it becomes difficult to get all the nutrients they need. Protein and overall calories are very important during this time to help facilitate the many changes that are occurring in a teen’s body – for example, bone growth and reproductive development. Additionally, essential vitamins and minerals are needed. One mineral that many teens with restrictive eating behaviours often do not get enough of is calcium. This is a serious concern as calcium requirements during teen years are the highest they will ever be – 1300mg per day. Teens need enough calcium to build strong bones and prevent bone loss later in life. If they do not get enough, they are at risk for developing osteoporosis and fractures. Alongside calcium, teens with restrictive eating patterns may be lacking other important nutrients, including iron, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. Teens who are on diets, or who have eating disorders, should connect with their family doctor or a dietitian to determine if they need to take vitamin and/or mineral supplements. Additionally, when struggling with eating disorders or disordered eating, family doctors can help teens connect with the health care professionals they need to overcome their illness.

A “Healthy” Diet

Whether an eating disorder develops as a result of weight control measure or not, a fixation on food as a means to control weight is not healthy. Teens must be taught that purposefully restricting their intake can be detrimental to their overall health. It is important that teens know that healthy eating is more than just fruits and vegetables. It means eating 3 balanced meals and 2-3 snacks each day. It means eating all foods, including carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. It means eating foods in moderation (yes, even a cookie or chips once in a while), and enjoying the foods they eat. Parents can help teens by being positive role models of body image and normal eating. Additionally, if there are concerns over disordered eating or an eating disorder, it is important that teens receive help from professionals who specialize in this area. Through promoting and fostering a positive relationship with food, and their bodies, one that is accepting of all shapes and sizes, our teens can become more confident, healthy adults. 

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