Teenage dieting is a dangerous game that may set the stage for life-long weight problems.
One American study, which studied the dieting habits of more than 4 000 teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18 years, found that 41% of the teenagers were attempting to lose weight.
In teenage girls, this figure was as high as 58% and many of these young people were using unhealthy methods to lose weight, including starvation, purging, overuse of laxatives, use of diet pills and smoking.
These figures are cause for real concern. Imagine that nearly 60% or 6 out of every 10 teenage girls are trying to lose weight and that most of them are going about this in potentially dangerous ways.
A second series of studies, which followed-up on more than 2 500 adolescents, found that teenagers who had been dieting in 1999 were not only more likely to be indulging in binge eating and poor dietary habits five years later, but most distressingly, were much more likely to be overweight.
The South African picture
In 2007, Dr Marjanne Senekal of the University of Cape Town presented a paper on weight-management-related problems at a symposium on sugar and health in Mpumalanga.
In her paper, Senekal reported that South African studies at universities revealed that nearly 82% of white students 'felt they were overweight', although in fact only 11-16% were actually overweight.
In addition, many of these students were using inappropriate methods to try to lose weight, even when they didn't need to.
So, the teenage dieting situation in South Africa is probably very similar to the US one.
Why teenagers starve themselves
The teenage years are usually turbulent and stressful as young people have to come to terms with their own developing bodies, hormonal changes, pressures of school, their peers and the outside world.
Open any fashion magazine and you'll see coat-hanger thin models strutting their stuff and anorexic film stars touting the modern image of beauty.
Teenagers read these magazines and want to emulate these models and film stars, without considering that to achieve such an emaciated look they'll have to diet to the brink of starvation.
Proof that fashion magazines have this fatal effect on young people was found in the second American study mentioned above. To quote the results, "One of the initial behaviours that strongly predicted being overweight and having unhealthy or extreme weight-control behaviours five years later (2-3x as likely) was reading magazine articles containing dieting advice, but only in girls" (Arbor Clinical Nutrition Updates, June 2007).
Reading magazines, particularly dieting advice and seeing the modern examples of beauty can therefore make teenagers, especially girls, go overboard with dieting, binging, popping diet pills, starving themselves, using harsh laxatives and purging and doing damage to themselves in the long run.
Keep in mind that these behaviours will not only ruin their present health and normal growth, but can make these teens fat in later life.
What's to be done?
At present, with nearly 60% of teenagers trying to lose weight and doing harm to their bodies in a vain attempt to look like their inappropriate role models, there seems to be few solutions to stop this epidemic of teenage starvation.
Parents can, however, play a pivotal role. Above all things, it's important for parents not to constantly tell their adolescent children that they're overweight. If your son or daughter has a genuine weight problem, talk to them with understanding and love. Don't break down their confidence.
Get expert assistance from a dietician and enrol your teenager at a good gym or Walk for Life to ensure that they get plenty of exercise.
Turning your teenager from a couch potato, who spends more than five hours a day hunched up in front of the TV or the PC, into a healthy, active young person who does more than 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day, will do more for his or her figure than direct dieting. Using exercise for weight loss in teenagers is also less likely to cause eating disorders.
As a parent, you also need to be aware of the signs of harmful teenage dieting. If your son or daughter isn't overweight and suddenly starts to get emaciated, picks at food, disappears into the bathroom after meals to vomit or purge, starts smoking or taking diet pills, get professional help immediately.
(Dr I.V. van Heerden, updated May 2009)
(Arbor Clinical Nutrition Updates (2007). Teenage Dieting. Issue 280, June 2007; M Senekal (2007) A continuum of weight management related problems: from classic eating disorders to obesity. Paper presented at the 'Nutrition: the sweet sense of it all. Sugar & Health Symposium, Malelane, 12 & 13 June 2007)
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