Girls who diet are more likely as adults to suffer certain health consequences, according to research introduced at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior in Seattle.
"We were able to demonstrate that younger age at first diet actually predicted health problems in the future," wrote the study co-author Pamela Keel of Florida State University, in an email to Anna Almendrala of The Huffington Post. Almendrala said Keel noted that if further studies back the finding, experts might "classify 'early dieting' as a risk factor for more serious problems."
The health issues they identified include misusing alcohol, eating disorders and being overweight or obese as adults.
Starting in 1982 and continuing every 10 years through 2002, the researchers asked 2,181 college women about their dieting and weight. They also contacted each woman 10 years after she was surveyed to see long-term health outcomes. The last follow-up was in 2012.
In a release about the research, they reported that "the younger a woman was when she started her first diet, the more likely she was to use extreme weight control behaviors like self-induced vomiting, misuse alcohol and be overweight or obese when she reached her 30s."
Wrote Almendrala: "Keel and team found that for each year younger at first diet, a woman's risk of these associations became stronger. For example, a woman who first dieted at age 11 would be 14 percent more likely to have an eating disorder, 79 percent more likely to abuse alcohol and 67 percent more likely to be overweight or obese by her thirties than someone who first dieted at 12 years."
The link between worries about a child's weight and its potential impact on health sometimes conflict with the risks created by approaching the topic with children and perhaps kicking off a reaction that leads to a child's warped sense of his or her own body.
"Parents walk a difficult tightrope because the obesity epidemic is real," Edward Abramson, author of "It's Not Just Baby Fat," told the Deseret News last year. He said excess weight and psychological risks often travel together. "Stigma attaches as early as kindergarten and doesn't go away; 100 percent of obese teenage girls had been at least verbally abused about their weight and studies show discrimination in school and work settings and in dating and relationships."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers strategies to help children achieve or maintain a healthy weight without dieting. The CDC suggests that parents emphasize the importance of eating healthy and that they look for ways to make favorite dishes healthier. They offer tips to remove high-calorie temptations from children, as well as strategies to eat better, exercise more and generally improve health and well-being. The CDC, too, notes that dieting is not a good idea.
In conjunction with a grand-rounds style discussion at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics Department of Psychiatry in June, Keel noted that as many as 30 million Americans and their family members are impacted by eating disorders, which she called "often silent" and "stigmatized."
Background information from the society regarding the new research said the study did not establish why dieting while young would have consequences later in life. It recommended that "public health initiatives promote behaviors that increase wellness in girls, such as increasing activity, decreasing leisure time watching TV and on computers, and consuming more fruits and vegetables. Such interventions may need to begin as early as elementary school to support girls as they enter puberty, a time when their bodies will naturally experience rapid growth, weight gain and an increase in body fat."
The research was supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health.
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