The National Center For Health Statistics found that 37.6% of teens ages 16-19 have tried to lose weight in the past year. This number was higher for girls than boys, and for Hispanic than non-Hispanic adolescents.
The findings of this study are concerning for many reasons. Dieting in adolescence is dangerous without the supervision of a doctor. Teens who try to lose weight without legitimate medical need may cause more harm than good. Dieting can lead to disordered eating habits and may trigger an eating disorder in individuals who are already at risk. Here are some things parents should know about teen dieting and the risk of eating disorders.
Unhealthy teen dieting methods
One of the biggest risks of teen dieting is the use of unhealthy methods. Here are some of the dieting techniques teens are using that could pose a health risk:
- Drinking excessive water;
- Restricting intake of a certain nutrient (carbs, fats, etc.);
- Skipping meals;
- Not eating enough calories to meet their nutritional needs.
If your teen uses any of these methods, talk to them about the importance of proper nutrition and healthy levels of exercise. You can also reach out to your family doctor and discuss your concerns. A doctor can help you evaluate whether your son or daughter could be struggling with an eating disorder.
The link between dieting and eating disorders in adolescents
All parents should be aware of the risk of eating disorders in teens, and the link between dieting and eating disorders. Some diets promote unhealthy behaviors that mimic eating disorder symptoms. This is especially true of fad diets such as keto and intermittent fasting.
The overall attitude of a diet is particularly important. Some diets promote a restrictive view of eating and nutrition, label certain foods as “good” or “bad,” or foster a sense of failure if an individual doesn’t strictly adhere to the diet. All of these aspects can trigger an eating disorder in an individual, especially if the teen possesses risk factors for eating disorders.
Warning signs parents should watch out for
If your son or daughter has started dieting, you should watch out for the early signs of an eating disorder. These could include:
- Significant or frequent changes in weight (gain or loss);
- Frequent talk of feeling “fat” or overweight;
- Wanting to lose more weight than is necessary (if on a doctor prescribed diet);
- Dissatisfaction with appearance, or a certain feature of the body;
- Preoccupation with calories, fat, carbs, or protein intake;
- Avoiding certain foods or entire food groups;
- Practicing a rigid exercise routine that will not be broken even for illness, injury, bad weather, etc;
- Skipping meals or eating smaller portions at meals;
- Disappearing after meals (often to the bathroom);
- Consuming an unusually large amount of food in a short period of time (look for evidence such as empty containers or wrappers);
- Purging after meals (vomiting, using laxatives or diuretics, exercising, or fasting);
- Evidence of purging can include callouses on the knuckles and back of hands, stained/discolored teeth, frequent trips to the bathroom (especially after meals) and laxative, diuretic, or enema packaging.
If you notice any of these symptoms in your child, talk to your doctor immediately. Eating disorders are life-threatening illnesses. The sooner you seek treatment, the more promising the outcome.
While some teens may need to diet due to the prescription of a doctor, the focus should never be on weight or appearance. Be sure to place the focus on health and proper nutrition and exercise.
How to help your son or daughter
As a parent, you play a crucial role in helping your teen develop a positive body image. Encourage them in their identity and affirm their character traits that go deeper than their physical attributes. Help them engage in activities that make them feel strong and capable, and avoid placing pressure on them in regards to their food choices. Remember that they are emotionally sensitive to these topics. Ensure that your voice is one of healing and care instead of wounding and shame.
If your child has started dieting and you suspect an eating disorder, the best thing to do is to be a loving support for them. If the results of a professional analysis indicate an eating disorder, seek treatment immediately.
Eating disorder treatments for teens vary. Your child may benefit from outpatient therapy sessions, or they may need a more structured program such as adolescent intensive outpatient or partial hospitalization. Some programs even incorporate holistic elements like yoga, art therapy or meditation and mindfulness practices.
Seeds of Hope offers eating disorder treatment programs for teens that incorporate traditional therapies as well as holistic methods. Reach out to our team today to schedule an evaluation for your child, or call 610-644-6464 to start your teen on the path to recovery.