Teens who go on diets or take unhealthy measures to lose weight may end up gaining pounds in the long run, according to a new study.
What's more, researchers found, these teens seem likely to get trapped in a pattern of unhealthy eating, extreme weight-loss tactics and, in some cases, overt eating disorders.
Among more than 2,500 teens in the study, those who said they were trying to control their weight were three times more likely than their peers to be overweight five years later. They were also at greater risk of having a binge-eating disorder, or to be vomiting or using diet pills, laxatives or diuretics in an effort to lose weight.
The findings, according to the study authors, suggest that dieting and other forms of weight control are either spurring weight gain and eating disorders, or serving as an early warning of problems ahead.
Whatever the case, they say, it seems that when teens diet — even in a healthy way — it often brings little benefit.
Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis report the findings in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
The study included 2,516 Minnesota students who were surveyed about any weight-control measures they were taking. That included unhealthy forms of dieting — like skipping meals or replacing food with diet drinks — as well as diet changes that are considered healthful, such as eating more fruits and vegetables and fewer sweets.
The teens were also asked whether they used diet pills, laxatives or diuretics to shed pounds.
Overall, 58 percent of girls and 31 percent of boys reported some form of unhealthy weight-control practice. These teens were more likely to be overweight five years later, even with their current weight taken into account.
Higher risk for eating disorders
Moreover, they were roughly six times more likely to develop a binge-eating disorder, and were at greater risk of using extreme measures to lose weight. Girls who reported unhealthy weight-loss tactics were also more likely to report any form of eating disorder five years later.
And although unhealthy measures were most harmful, healthy dieting was also linked to a higher risk of being overweight or developing a binge-eating problem — at least among girls.
This, Neumark-Sztainer and her colleagues write, suggests the need for a "major shift" in attitudes toward weight control. Many teens, they point out, are likely to need help in making lasting, healthy changes in their diets and exercise habits, as opposed to quick fixes.
But most concerning, according to the researchers, are the lasting problems linked to teens' weight-control efforts — particularly unhealthy forms.
"Clearly," they write, "dieting is not an innocuous behavior that can be brushed aside as normative for teens."