Teenage Dieting Often A Gateway To Other Risky Behaviors, Study Finds

WATERLOO, Ontario — Your teenage daughter says “no thanks” to pizza. She says she needs to lose a few pounds. Should you be concerned that she will also take up smoking or drinking? Maybe, according to a recent study.

Researchers with the University of Waterloo have found a link between teenage dieting and other risky behaviors. Their results reveal that adolescent girls who are dieting are 1.55 times more likely to smoke and engage in binge drinking and 1.64 times more likely to smoke and skip breakfast.

“It might seem natural for there to be a connection between dieting and behaviors such as smoking and skipping meals, but the explanation is not so clear for something like binge drinking,” says lead study author Amanda Raffoul, a PhD candidate in the School of Public Health and Health Systems with the university, in a statement. “Our findings suggest that dieting and other risky health behaviors may be related to common underlying factors, such as poor body image.”

Researchers studied data from 3,386 high school girls who had participated in COMPASS, a longitudinal school-based study that collects self-reported measurements on weight, dieting and other health-related information.

Girls dieting at the beginning of the study were much more likely to be involved in a set of risky behaviors three years later, the authors found, suggesting an overall pattern of unhealthy choices.

The study also found that 58 percent of participants were dieting at the beginning of the study — a percentage which rose over the course of the study period.

“The link between dieting and other health-compromising behaviors is worrisome since 70 percent of girls reported dieting at some point over the three years,” Raffoul points out. “Post-puberty changes often lead to weight gain among girls and there is incredible pressure from social media and elsewhere to obtain and maintain the ideal body.”

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Many teens struggle with unrealistic body images and weight loss often becomes the goal.

“Intentional weight loss is not something we should necessarily encourage, especially among this population, since it’s possible that well-meaning initiatives that promote dieting may be doing more harm than good,” Raffoul added. “Instead, we should focus on health broadly rather than weight as an indicator of health.”

The authors say their results suggest that dieting is an early warning sign for other risky behaviors in teen girls. They want to see healthier weight management approaches and better defensive postures in place to resist the factors that push teens toward dieting and other unhealthy lifestyle habits.

The study is published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

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