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Extreme Dieting in Teens

written by: Genevieve Van Wyden • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 5/24/2010

Extreme dieting in teens takes the form of focusing on one food or food group to eat or avoid, misusing laxatives or forced vomiting. Teens expose themselves to health risks that can affect them immediately or far into their future. Unrealistic media images become the standard teens follow.

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    Introduction

    Teens who choose to follow an extreme diet--classified as severely restricting one or more food groups, concentrating very heavily on one or more food groups, using laxatives to induce weight loss, fasting or vomiting after eating put themselves at risk for health complications now and in the future. The implications of extreme dieting for teens means that they are depriving themselves of nutrients they need as they mature into their adult bodies. Along with infancy and toddlerhood, the teen years are a time when proper nutrition is especially important for brain, muscle, bone and sexual development, according to the About Teens website.

    Teens who undertake an extreme diet may be suffering from emotional difficulties or depression. If their extreme dieting progresses into a full-blown eating disorder--anorexia nervosa or bulimia, and the psychological illness and physical symptoms are not treated, these children are at risk of suffering permanent damage to their reproductive, gastrointestinal and dental systems. If their psychological problems are not discovered until it’s too late, the teen could die from complications related to the eating disorder.

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    Nutritional Deprivation

    Teens (both boys and girls) who choose to follow an extreme diet deprive themselves of nutrients they need the most--fruits, vegetables, protein and dairy. Male teens who are trying to bulk up and female teens who are trying to lose 20 lbs in a week so they can fit in a size 2 bathing suit are setting themselves up for future health problems, according to the About Teens website. Extreme dieting in teens is one factor in poor nutrition. As these children try to meet unrealistic expectations, their dieting deprives their still-growing bodies of nutrients from all food groups.

    Girls who limit themselves to very low-calorie foods such as lettuce, diet soda or jello deprive themselves of the calcium their bones need now. As they do this, they’re setting themselves up for future bone problems such as osteoporosis and broken bones. Boys aren’t immune to this kind of behavior either. Those who participate in their school’s wrestling program are classified by weight classifications, and prior to wrestling matches, they’re trying to “make weight". As they do so, they may employ some of the same behaviors that girls use such as forced vomiting.

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    Other Risky Behaviors

    Today’s teens are exposed to unrealistic images presented by the media. When teen girls can’t reach the sizes of the ultra-thin models they see in magazines, they may decide to follow an extreme diet, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website.

    Even more worrisome, these teens fall into a class that’s more likely to practice other risky behaviors such as unsafe sex, smoking and drug use. The children in this group are less likely to make healthy diet decisions, according to the SAMSHA website.

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    Emotional and Mental Health

    Parents who observe their teen children following risky dieting practices should also look at their child’s overall lifestyle. If they observe possible signs of depression or low self-image, they need to intervene by discussing their concerns with the school counselor or their child’s doctor, according to the SAMSHA website.

    Risky behaviors can be a tip-off to parents that their child is suffering a mental illness. If the child chooses to take up an extreme diet rather than incorporate healthy foods and moderate exercise, parents should intervene.

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    Risk of Developing an Eating Disorder

    When risky teen behaviors are looked at, the extreme diet is only one of several behaviors that underscore the possible tendency for teens to engage in other risky behaviors. Extreme dieting in teens should not be dismissed by parents. If they notice troublesome behaviors or symptoms, parents should sit down with their children and engage them in conversation. Parents should stress the risks their teens are exposing themselves to, such as physical and long-term health effects.

    These teens, who are more likely to be suffering from low self-esteem or depression, are also more likely to slip into a full-fledged eating disorder. As they feel other areas of their lives winding out of control, they realize they can manage at least one part of their lives--their lack of food intake. When they are able to control what they eat, they begin to feel better about their self-discipline. This feeling of control begins to take over at the same time as the eating disorder begins to manipulate them.

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    References

    About.com Mental Health: Teens on Extreme Diets Take Other Health Risks http://mentalhealth.about.com/library/sci/0103/bldiet103.htm

    samsha.gov: Teen Dieting and Risky Behavior http://family.samhsa.gov/monitor/dieting.aspx

    About.com/Teens: Extreme Eating http://parentingteens.about.com/cs/nutrition/a/eatinghabits.htm

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