Despite growing awareness around body positivity, new research has found more American teenagers are dieting today than in the past — especially young women.
From 2013 to 2016, nearly 38 per cent of adolescents between the ages of 16 and 19 said they had tried to lose weight during the past year, according to new data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics.
This number is up from previous years, as around 24 per cent of U.S. adolescents attempted to lose weight between 2009 and 2010.
The CDC found almost half of adolescent girls tried to lose weight compared to almost one-third of boys. For both boys and girls, a higher percentage of Hispanic teenagers tried to lose weight compared to other groups, the centre wrote.
The data found that among those who tried to lose weight, the most common ways were through exercise (83.5 per cent), drinking a lot of water (52 per cent) and eating less (nearly 49 per cent). Over 82 per cent of teens said they tried to lose weight using two or more methods.
The recent U.S. data is not surprising to Amanda Raffoul, a PhD candidate in the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo who researches disordered eating and dieting, largely in adolescents.
Raffoul says there’s reason to believe more Canadian teens are trying to lose weight, too. She says unlike the U.S., Canada does not have consistent weight-loss data for youth.
“A lot of us working in the area have assumed that rates of dieting have gone up, but without consistent data sources, we can’t necessarily track those changes over time as well,” she said. “Seeing results like this sort of confirms our beliefs — but it’s still incredibly concerning.”
Why more youth are trying to lose weight
Raffoul says teens and children are particularly vulnerable to weight-loss messaging in society. As children grow into adolescents, they internalize any pressures from family, friends and the media. This can lead to unhealthy weight-loss behaviours.
“Combine that with the fact that there’s a growing emphasis on health and wellness that proliferates across social media and popular messaging, and are constantly engaged,” Raffoul said.
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Things like weight-loss tea and waist trainers — products often endorsed by celebrities and influencers on Instagram — affect the adolescents that see them. Raffoul says products like these promise “easy and simple weight loss,” which is enticing to young adults.
“When you’re a teenager or child who’s under a lot of pressure to look a certain way and something that’s a promised ‘easy solution,’ that makes you more inclined to want to engage in that,” she explained. “Even though we know that weight is incredibly complex and not something that simple.”
Dieting in youth can affect people into adulthood
As the CDC report found, Raffoul says young women are more likely to engage in weight-loss behaviour or dieting than young men.
A recent report that Raffoul co-authored found women and non-binary individuals had a higher risk of engaging in more weight‐loss behaviours, many of which were unhealthy or dangerous. (It’s important to note than men and adolescents are affected by eating disorders and dieting, too.)
Developing unhealthy dieting behaviours as an adolescent puts people at a greater risk of having disordered eating habits as an adult, Raffoul says. This is particularly true for women.
“Eating disorders are obviously very complex and have a lot of factors that contribute to them,” Raffoul said. “But dieting at a young age is a pretty major risk factor.”
How to have healthy conversations around weight
To combat the risk of developing an eating disorder or disordered relationship with food, Raffoul says it’s important for youth to see messages that promote health — not weight loss.
Educating children and teens on the importance of regular exercise and a balanced diet is necessary, but the focus around these topics should never be on weight loss.
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“If we continuously focus on needing to lose weight as an indicator of health, then people will do whatever they can, or feel like they need to do, to lose that weight without focusing on not only their physical health but also their mental health and social well-being,” she said.
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