Should You Allow Your Teen to Diet?

My 16-year-old daughter is constantly dieting. The other day, she came home with a package of diet pills. Should I allow her to diet or should I discourage her?

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Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

By the age of 16, it is hard, if not counterproductive, to lay down rules about what your child can and cannot eat. It is hoped that by this time, the lessons you have taught them about good eating during their childhood years will have been well learned. However, most teens have less than perfect eating habits. And unfortunately, some of those eating habits can lead to eating disorders if not caught in time.

As much as 62 percent of adolescent girls report dieting. And they aren't alone: 28 percent of teen boys report dieting, too, according to The National Adolescent and School Health Survey.

Dieting is associated with a greater risk of developing future eating disorders. It is also associated with compromised nutrient intakes due to restricted intake of certain food groups -- especially dairy products, fruits and vegetables. This can have negative consequences during critical periods of growth and development.

The 1993 Youth Risk Behavior Survey brings to light some of the differences between moderate and extreme dieters and between dieters and non-dieters. Extreme dieters have an increased risk of developing eating disorders. An extreme dieter is one who severely restricts food intake, uses diet pills or vomits to control weight. Extreme dieters are more likely to engage in other unhealthy activities such as laxative use, vomiting and smoking. (Nutrition Research Newsletter, November 1998.) Moderate dieters reported eating fewer high fat foods, ate more fruits and vegetables and engaged in more regular and vigorous activity than non-dieters. In other words, the moderate dieters actually had behaviors considered to be health promoting!

Taking into account a teen's desire to make his or her own decisions, along with the risk of extreme dieting leading to full blown eating disorders, I suggest you support your daughter's desire to lose weight. However, simultaneously appeal to her common sense. Ask her to proceed in a moderate fashion. Request that she avoid diet pills, but instead offer to help set up a diet plan that incorporates exercise. For example, can you offer to buy her a membership at a local gym?

If common sense and family support don't help, than you will need to be alert for warning signs of an eating disorder, which will need to be referred to counselors and dietitians. You may find help in identifying warning signs at The Something Fishy Web Site on Eating Disorders.

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