If you have a teenager in your house, there is a good chance they are now or have been on a diet. According to the National Institutes for Health, half of all teenage girls and a quarter of teenage boys have already tried dieting as a way to change their body. If you take a look at the world from their perspective, it is easy to understand why. Every image in their world sends the message that being thin makes you attractive, that being thin will make you popular, that being thin is the only way to be happy. In addition, there is constant coverage of the obesity epidemic, which may add more pressure to go on a diet, lose weight, and change themselves.
Unfortunately, the research shows that dieting, in the traditional sense, simply doesn’t work. Cutting calories, skipping meals, and restricting food choices can actually have the opposite effect. For some people, dieting can actually cause weight gain rather than weight loss. The same is true for teens. In addition, because teens are often dieting to look different rather than to improve their health, they are more likely to set unhealthy weight goals. In order to help their teens, parents need to understand how their teens see themselves, why they want to lose weight or change their bodies, and what they can do to be supportive while also ensuring their teens aren’t straying into unhealthy territory.
In order to understand the long term effects of dieting, a research team at UCLA looked at data from 31 different studies that collected data for at least a year. The results were sobering for anyone who is dieting in order to lose weight. Looking across the studies, the team found that almost 50% of people who dieted and lost weight, gained back more weight than they lost. In fact, some of the studies showed that as many as two thirds of the participants gained back more than they lost.
The team concluded that there are two primary reasons that diets don’t work. First, it is very difficult to change how and what we eat. These behaviors and habits are ingrained in us and the lives we have built support them. Unless we are able to change our lifestyle and our environment, it is very difficult to change our relationship with food. Second, the law of diminishing returns comes into play and can sabotage any success we do experience. This means that if you reduce your caloric intake or cut out a food group, you may lose weight but your body will adjust which means over time you will have to make more significant changes in order to lose more weight. It also means that maintaining any weight loss will require you to keep the same restrictions. For most people, this is unmanageable over time.
If your teen is struggling with their weight or is feeling like they need to lose weight, you can be supportive by encouraging them to make lifestyle changes rather than trying the diet of the week. Teaching teens about healthy eating habits and the importance of exercise in weight loss and maintaining a healthy weight will be key to their feeling, and being, healthier.