Teen dieting may lead to eating disorders

Modern teens are in a difficult position. Thinness for girls and leanness for boys is prized by both the social media esthetic, popularized by Instagram, as well as current fashion trends. Ironically, the social pressure to be thin is happening at a time when more than 30% of adolescents aged 12-19 years are overweight or obese. Additionally, 50% of teen girls are, or think they should be, on a diet. 

Eating disorders in adolescence often begin when a teen is trying to lose weight. The change from a simple weight loss program to an eating disorder can occur in normal weight teens or adolescents who are overweight or obese. Therefore, all parents need to be watchful to assure their teen stays safe.

Overweight or obese teens are at risk for physical health issues such as diabetes, coronary artery disease, fatty liver disease, and bone and joint problems as well as psychosocial difficulties such as depression. Therefore it is a good idea that overweight or obese teens reduce their body weight to reduce their health risks. However, the desire to lose weight quickly can lead teens to unhealthy behaviors that may lead them to develop an eating disorder.

In today’s fast paced world, it is common to seek quick-fix solutions to complex problems. The desire for a fast remedy also extends to weight loss. Social media and the Internet are full of quick ways to lose weight and slim down. Many teens read and try the information they see online. Eating disorders may develop when teens, and their parents, misunderstand what “healthy eating” really means. Information on nutrition presented on the Internet frequently confuses both teens and their parents.

Some of the fast weight loss options that are attractive to teens but put them at risk for eating disorders include:

  • “Cleanses” involving clear juices and laxatives to lose weight;
  • “Intermittent fasting” involving restricting calories to less than 500 kcal/ day and skipping meals; and
  • “Clean eating” involving the elimination of food groups such as meat, sugar, fat, carbohydrates, gluten, dairy, or grains.

The quick weight loss that can occur using these methods can lead to health concerns. Adolescents are in a period of rapid growth and development physically, intellectually, and emotionally. Therefore, even overweight and obese teens need to consume sufficient calories to maintain their energy and support healthy growth and development. Losing weight quickly is not optimal for adolescent health.

So what can parents do to help their overweight teens lose weight and not develop an eating disorder? The key is to change the dialog from dieting to a healthy lifestyle for the entire family.  Here are some tips to help families get started:

  • Be a healthy role model and purchase healthy foods for the family
  • Limit sweet drinks and encourage drinking water
  • Limit sugary and salty snacks and encourage snacking on fruits and veggies
  • Encourage daily physical activity and put limits on screen time
  • Remove televisions and screens from teens’ bedrooms so they sleep better
  • Have family meals with home-cooked food to open conversation and increase family bonding

Wondering how much screen time is appropriate for teens? Check out my blog post New recommendations for babies, children and teens: How much screen time is safe for kids? to learn more. Or maybe you don’t know how much exercise a teen needs to stay healthy? To learn more about physical activity, see my post Is my child physically active enough?

The key to stopping the progression from losing weight to an eating disorder is to promote a positive body image, regardless of size. Focus on healthy living and daily activity rather than on weight. Discourage the use of fad diets, skipping meals and diet pills and teach teens how to live a balanced, healthy life. Teen are more than their body weight; staying focused on all their positive qualities will give them the motivation to continue with a healthy, slow weight loss that supports their growth and development.

Being overweight or obese as a teen has health risks. Parents can help support their teens to move towards a healthy weight while reducing the risk of developing an eating disorder by helping create a family-centered, healthy lifestyle environment.


Golden, N., Schneider, M., & Wood, C. (2016). AAP Committee on Nutrition: Preventing obesity and eating disorders in adolescents. Pediatrics 138(3): e20161649.

National Institutes of Health. (2018). Eating disorders: About more than food. Retrieved from: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders/index.shtml. Accessed April 2, 2019.

Rosen, D. (2010). AAP Committee on Adolescence: Identification and management of eating disorders in children and adolescents. Pediatrics 126(6), pp. 1240-1253.

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About the instructor
Proactive Parenting
Deanna Marie Mason PhD
More than 20 years of clinical experience helping families:
Bachelor's Degree in Registered Nursing, Master’s Degree in Pediatric Nurse Practitioner and PhD in Nursing. University professor, patient education specialist, pediatric researcher, published author and reviewer to first-line international scientific journals, continuous philanthropic activity related to health promotion and education, wife and mother of two children.

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