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Today's Teens More Likely to Diet Compared to Past Generations, Study Shows

High school student having breakfast in the morning at home before going to school

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Key Takeaways

  • New research looked at how weight-control behaviors among teenagers have changed in the three decades between 1986 and 2015.
  • When compared to earlier decades, teens in recent years were more likely to engage in weight control behaviors and suffer from depression.
  • Public health obesity campaigns may inadvertently lead teens to be too concerned about weight, which may lead to poor body image, dieting, and depression.

Diet culture is pervasive in our society, and the desire to achieve a thin, lean, or muscular body affects children and adults alike. Teens have engaged in dieting behaviors for many years, and a team of researchers from the U.K. wanted to see how diet and weight-control behaviors have changed over three generations. Their research found that present day teens are more likely to diet compared to those from earlier generations.??

What the Study Found

The researchers compared cohorts from 1986, 2005, and 2015, for a total study of 22,503 teens aged 14-16 years old. In the study, they found that teens in 2015 were dieting more often than teens in 1986 or 2005.

In the biggest jump, researchers noted that in 2015, 44% of teens dieted and 60% exercised to lose weight, compared with 1986 numbers, where 37% of teens dieted and just 7% exercised for weight loss.

Interestingly, while teen girls were more likely to report dieting and exercising to lose weight, the number of teen boys with these behaviors increased the most over time, showing that boys are not immune to diet culture.

Teens girls were more interested in weight loss, while boys were interested in gaining weight or muscle. This may be caused by a shift in media representation of male beauty ideals, with lean muscular bodies increasingly being normalized.

Media Messaging and Diet Culture

What accounts for the large increase in diet-focused behavior among today’s teens? Lead study author Francesca Solmi, Ph.D., senior research fellow in the Division of Psychiatry of University College London, says they didn’t set out to explore “why” weight behaviors change, but she shared some thoughts with Verywell Fit.

“Some hypotheses are that over the years, there has been an increased focus on messages promoting weight loss coming from both the private (expansion of fitness sector, diet industry) and public sectors (public health messages focusing on maintaining a healthy weight or losing weight). These might have resulted in increased concerns about weight in young people and associated behaviors,” says Solmi.

Anna M. Lutz, RD

Messages about health need to be weight-neutral and include messages about body diversity. There are behaviors that support health such as physical activity, eating a variety of foods, stress relief and getting enough sleep. We can talk with teens about health behaviors without even a mention of weight.

— Anna M. Lutz, RD

This study found that weight control behaviors in teens were also associated with greater depressive symptoms in 2015 compared with 2005 and 1986.

“We found that girls who described themselves as overweight had greater symptoms of depression than girls who described themselves as being ‘about the right weight,’" says Solmi. “We also saw this pattern among girls who were trying to lose weight by dieting or exercising.”

She explains that because the study was cross-sectional, it cannot discern whether girls who have greater body dissatisfaction then become more depressed or vice versa, but says that previous studies have shown that body dissatisfaction leads to depression, as opposed to the other way around.

This new study adds to the body of research that outlines a growing problem for teens. Past research from the United States,?? Norway,?? Sweden,?? and New Zealand?? show similar increases in weight control and depression for teens.

What This Means For You

The focus on weight and body size among teens has become more important than the focus on health, which is alarming. It can lead teens to struggle with weight, self-esteem, depression, and possibly eating disorders. We need to find better ways to talk about health and wellness with today’s children and teens, so they have brighter futures that are not marred by chronic dieting and depression.

Shifting the Conversation

One positive solution to the growing burden of teen dieting is to alter public health messaging. “At least in the U.K., we have not seen any substantial decline in the proportion of overweight and obese adolescents over the past 15-20 years,” says Solmi. “This suggests that existing campaigns might not be very effective.”

Solmi adds that dieting is not effective for weight loss, particularly in the long term, so focusing on health instead of weight might be one approach.

In the paper, the researchers note that public health campaigns around obesity should advocate for health as opposed to thinness; promote family meals; and encourage teens to exercise for health, well-being, and socialization rather than for weight loss.

“We also know that there are social determinants to obesity (structural inequalities, deprivation etc.), hence perhaps tackling those would have an impact on reducing population levels of overweight and obesity,” says Solmi.

Anna M. Lutz, a certified eating disorders registered dietitian with Sunny Side Up Nutrition in Raleigh, North Carolina says she’s not surprised by the findings in this study, since she’s seen a similar rise in the incidence of eating disorders—of which dieting and weight control are risk factors—during this same time period.

Health, Not Weight

“Messages about health need to be weight-neutral and include messages about body diversity,” explains Lutz. “There are behaviors that support health such as physical activity, eating a variety of foods, stress relief and getting enough sleep. We can talk with teens about health behaviors without even a mention of weight.”

Susan Osher, a certified eating disorders dietitian with Connected Eating in Toronto, agrees that public health campaigns can have a negative effect on teens, especially if the messages trickle down into the school system. But she thinks that that the study may have missed one bigger influencer for teens.

“I think the one big omission on this study that’s absolutely crucial is a teen’s access to social media,” says Osher. “The images on social media are a big part of why young people go on diets. Twenty years ago, teens may have looked at models from Vogue or Cosmopolitan. But now there are more of these images—for both males and females—all over social media. It’s a radical shift over this last decade, which can’t be ignored.”

Lutz recognizes this as well. “The messages teens get about weight are insidious in media, fashion, education, and our medical systems,” she says. “Teens are given the message that larger bodies are less valued than smaller bodies. Instead, we need to focus on valuing body diversity and promoting behaviors that support health, with dieting not being one of them.”

What’s Next?

One shortcoming of this study was the lack of cultural diversity, since 90% of the teens were white. “We have accounted for ethnic composition of the studies in our analyses, but we did not have enough statistical power to investigate whether these trends differ by ethnic group,” says Solmi. “Studies looking at this are needed, and there is more literature on disordered eating and body image in ethnic minorities in the US than there is in the U.K.”

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