Teenagers see them everywhere: media messages telling them to change themselves. They’re in magazines, on the Internet, on television and at the movies. Most are ads designed to get teens to buy something, like clothes, makeup or a weight loss product.
One of the strongest messages teens get is that they need to be thin. Images and words in the media tell them that being thin means they are beautiful, happy and in control of their lives. But in real life, people who are happy and successful come in all shapes and sizes.
Along with the pressure to be thin, you hear about different ways to lose weight. When we hear about ‘going on a diet’, we usually think about eating less or eating differently to try to lose weight. Teens who go on a diet can make some good choices about nutrition (eating more fruit, vegetables and fibre, or cutting down on snack foods) or bad choices (skipping meals, eating too little or not eating enough variety of food).
Many teens turn to dieting to try to change their bodies and feel better about themselves. Unfortunately, it usually doesn’t work. Dieting actually causes some people to gain weight.
Teens who diet are often more concerned with how they look than their health. And this can lead to weight-loss goals that are not healthy.
If you have a teenager or care about teenagers, this information sheet is for you. It has facts about dieting and teens, and suggestions on how to help if you know a teenager concerned about his or her weight.
Did you know? Fast facts about teens and dieting
- About one-half (1 in every 2) of teenage girls and one-quarter (1 in every 4) of teenage boys have tried dieting to change the shape of their bodies.
- More than 1 in 3 girls (about 33%) who are actually at a healthy weight still try to diet.
Teens who diet may not be as psychologically healthy as other teens. Compared with teens who don’t diet, teens who do:
- are more unhappy with their weight;
- tend to ‘feel fat’ even if they are not;
- have lower self-esteem;
- feel less connected to their families and schools;
- feel less in control of their lives;
- are more likely to engage in risky behaviours such as smoking, using drugs or having unprotected sex;
- are more likely to engage in unhealthy weight loss behaviours such as using diet pills, laxatives or vomiting after meals; and
- are more likely to have a parent who criticizes their weight, encourages them to diet or who is preoccupied with weight themselves.
We hear a lot about how bad it is to be fat and about childhood obesity, so what is the problem with dieting?
- If your teen wants to get to and stay at a healthy weight, going on a diet is not a good solution. It hardly ever works.
- Over time, children and youth may be more likely to gain weight if they try to diet. This is probably because going without eating the foods they enjoy makes them feel deprived and sad, which may lead to overeating.
Dieting may make teens feel:
- hungry and preoccupied with food (thinking about it all the time);
- distracted and tired;
- sad and unmotivated (they don’t feel like doing things);
- cold and dizzy; and
- deprived of foods they enjoy.
- Some forms of dieting can be dangerous to the health of children and youth such as skipping meals, using weight loss pills or laxatives, going on ‘crash’ diets or vomiting after eating.
- Teens are still growing and need the right amount of nutrients to be healthy. Eliminating entire food groups or taking in too few calories when they are still developing can have serious negative effects on their health.
All teens talk about their weight. Isn’t it normal to worry?
- It is common for teens to feel self-conscious, but constantly feeling bad about their bodies, worrying about weight or feeling guilty when they eat is not normal or healthy. This is called having a negative body image. Teens who have a negative body image often lack confidence in other areas of their lives as well.
- If you are the parent of a teen who seems excessively worried about their weight, discuss this with them. It could be a phase or you may be picking up on a more serious problem such as an eating disorder. If you are concerned, have your teen see their doctor.
- Many teens who are preoccupied with their weight have a parent who is also preoccupied with their weight. Consider your own eating and weight control behaviours. What kind of role model are you? Do your attitudes about food and your body tell your teen that it’s normal to worry about your weight?
Here are some suggestions for parents, teachers, coaches and other mentors to help a teen who is weight preoccupied or dieting:
- Find out why they are dieting and what effect it is having on their lives.
- Acknowledge what they feel by letting them know that you understand the pressures to be thin.
- Help teens challenge media norms about how we are supposed to look.
- Advise teens that dieting doesn’t work and may lead to overeating.
- Learn to praise teens (girls especially) for qualities other than appearance.
- For coaches, be aware that your comments about weight may be very powerful. Direct or indirect suggestions that weight loss would enhance performance can be very damaging to young athletes.
- Enjoy all four food groups every day. Following Canada’s Food Guide can be helpful.
- Encourage teens to be active everyday.
- Be a positive role model by showing that you accept your own body’s shape and size, as well as that of others.
- Be a positive role model by eating healthy, balanced meals and snacks, and by being physically active.
For more information about healthy eating and activity:
- Physical activity for children and youth
- Physical activity for children and youth with a chronic illness
- Healthy eating for children
- Canada Food Guide
- Dietitians of Canada
For more information about weight preoccupation and eating disorders:
- Dieting: Information for teens
- Dieting in adolescence (position statement)
- The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC)
Reviewed by the following CPS Committees:
Adolescent Health Committee
Last updated: February 2008