Telling Teens To Diet Can Be Disastrous, So Do This Instead

by Melissa L. Fenton
KatarzynaBialasiewicz / Getty Images

As if today’s teenagers don’t have enough to deal with already, now there’s potentially one more trauma-inducing and potentially lifelong consequence they must deal with: being told by their own parents that their bodies — specifically how much they weigh — needs an overhaul.

Research published recently in the Journal of Pediatrics found that teens who were told they needed to go on a diet and lose weight go on to have a much greater risk of obesity and eating disorders as adults than those who weren’t. The study — which was first given to teenagers around the age of 15 — asked about certain eating behaviors, and if the teens were being pressured or encouraged to diet by their parents. 37% of those teens surveyed reported being told to diet by their parents, with a majority of them being girls, younger in age, from low-income households, overweight or obese, or non-white.

Those same teenagers were surveyed as adults and the results are eye opening, to say the least. The same teens who had been pushed or told to diet were 25% more likely to be overweight, and 37% more likely to be obese as adults. Also noted was the fact that those teens told to diet were 72% more likely to binge eat at some point as adults.

One of the lead authors of the study, Jerica Berge of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, states that those pressures, although probably well-intended, can lead to a lifetime of food issues. She says, “When adolescents were encouraged to diet by their parents, they were more likely to be overweight, engage in unhealthy weight control behaviors, binge eat and diet, and to have lower body satisfaction as adults.”

The same study also revealed something even more shocking — that those same teens who were made to feel insecure about their bodies and told to diet, grew into adults who did the same thing to their own children. 50% of parents who talk to their own teens about dieting are just repeating the same pressures done to them when they were teens, resulting in what researchers call a multigenerational cycle of misinformed and unhealthy eating behaviors and food attitudes.

Unfortunately, teens who feel pressure to diet from their parents often do so in the unhealthiest of manners, and at a time when their bodies are already going through enough physical and emotional changes as it is. The onslaught of perfectly skinny model-type bodies are much more prevalent today than in years past, thanks to social media and its image heavy platforms. Teens aren’t just seeing these bodies once a month on the cover of a teen fashion magazine. They’re seeing them all day, every day in their Instagram and SnapChat feeds. Craving those unattainable bodies (and the bodies their parents are telling them to get) can cause teens to try unconventional and often unsafe dieting practices — short-term fixes like diet pills, low-calorie cleanses, supplements, and skipping meals altogether.

Katherine Bauer, a nutrition specialist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and co-author of a related editorial about the study, believes today’s parents need to learn how to properly talk weight and food issues with their teens, so as not to perpetuate unhealthy eating habits into adulthood. She says, “In our weight-focused society, it’s very easy to get caught up in a high focus on weight and eating. Ultimately, though, once we’re aware of our beliefs and behaviors, with the right resources we can create more supportive environments that focus on health and wellbeing, rather than the number on the scale.”

Experts suggest focusing on the overall health and wellbeing of the child — and the family as a whole. Dr. Stephen J. Pont, one of the lead authors of a new policy statement issued jointly by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Obesity Society titled “Stigma Experienced by Children and Adolescents With Obesity,” recently told the New York Times that the most effective way for parents to help a child is to make healthy changes for the whole family, regardless of shape or size. For instance, parents can make small changes, like adding a new vegetable to the family’s meals, not keeping sugary drinks in the home, and encouraging kids to walk or bike to school.

The study findings are a serious wake up call for parents of teens, insofar as it appears we need a total overhaul in how, when, and why we have conversations about body image and healthy lifestyles with our teenagers. Doing it correctly means we have a great chance of raising adults with healthy body weights and body images, but doing it wrong can be disastrous in the long run.

For more information on how to talk to your teenagers about healthy body image and healthy eating habits, visit