With media and Internet playing such a big part in many people’s lives, its influence on our perception of beauty has become unavoidable. And adolescents as particularly susceptible to values and messages transmitted by media quite often end up developing a certain kind of positive and negative body image, with the former one being ‘the thinner, the better’. This results into massive engagement of teenagers into various dieting practices, only few of which are more or less harmless. What impact can dieting in adolescence make on young people’s health and further life?
Taking into consideration that because of unhealthy media pressure and inaccurate information the whole concept of dieting is perceived by a lot of people, adults and adolescents alike, as a temporary change of eating habits to generally low daily intake of calories along with active, but not necessarily effective increase in physical activity, attempts to lose weight among teenagers often leads to involvement into quite dangerous eating strategies.
These can include chronic dieting, skipping meals, deliberate self-deprivation of important nutrients because of high calorie content of foods they can be found in, fad dieting etc. At an alarming rate these eating habits may develop into eating disorders, particularly among teenage girls.
As a vast number of cross-sectional studies have said, most common risk factors that may push teenagers towards unhealthy dieting practices are:
- Low-self esteem;
- Overly big exposure to media promoting thinness as an equal to happiness and self-satisfaction;
- Lack of positive attributes in one’s life;
- Peer pressure;
- Being under constant stress;
- Engagement into other risk activities like unprotected sex, substance abuse, self-harm, smoking for weight control etc.;
- Parental criticism and/or mocking as well as negative role modeling by parents of other significant adults.
The aforementioned aspects along with lack of information about what healthy dieting lead to severe eating disorders like bulimia, anorexia and more psychiatric problems caused by those. Also, as group of researchers from University of Minnesota have found out, adolescents who have been dieting for a long time, whether they have already got eating disorders or not, bring all the unhealthy practices adopted earlier into their young adulthood and even beyond, with health issues inevitably developing further.
As a result of harmful dieting patterns adolescents are also highly likely to get a number of physiological consequences, such as electrolyte disturbances, cardiac dysrhythmias, or even sudden cardiac death, and, this it may be surprising, obesity. As weight lost during temporary decrease in daily food intake in almost all cases is gained back within a few months to a few years after unhealthy dieting, people who have been engaged into fight with their bodies for a long time at one unhappy moment unexpectedly discover they have actually become obese. As of the period from 1972 to 2002, obesity in adolescents has increased to 75%, according to Southern Medical Journal.
So, what can be a healthy decision for an adolescent who would like to lose some weight? Scientists and doctors from different US institutions recommend such practices as:
- Moderate changes in one’s diet and general lifestyle (e.g., exercising);
- Keeping track of one’s physiological and psychological well-being while dieting;
- Finding a positive adult role model and support among peers or at least avoid toxic environment and decrease amount of peer pressure, if possible;
- Increase general intake of fruits and vegetables;
- Keep in mind that healthy dieting is a lifestyle and not a temporary practice.
Parents and other adults who want to support their youngsters may find it very helpful to examine their own eating strategies and even modify them to a healthier pattern. While negative media messages are unlikely to disappear within our lifetime, we are perfectly capable to implement many protective measures that will vastly benefit adolescents.