Research led by University College London has found that the number of UK 14-year-olds who are dieting or exercising to lose weight has increased over the last 30 years.
The study findings, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, suggest the proportion of UK adolescents trying to lose weight at age 14 years has increased over the past 30 years.
In 2015, 44 per cent of adolescents aged 14 years were dieting. The authors describe this as concerning in light of evidence that dieting is generally ineffective for weight loss and is longitudinally associated with weight gain and poor mental health.
The study found that the association between dieting behaviours and overweight perception and depressive symptoms in girls has increased in magnitude over the past 30 years. Although the study could not directly measure this, the authors say it is possible that mounting societal pressures to lose weight could be becoming more detrimental for young people’s mental health and that they could be a contributor to the rising prevalence of adolescent mental health disorders.
Although girls were more likely to report these behaviours in all cohorts, the prevalence increased more in boys over time.
“Early adolescence is a crucial developmental period, when dieting could have a range of negative outcomes, from delayed growth to eating disorders. Reducing the prevalence of restrictive eating behaviors and weight dissatisfaction should be considered an important public health priority in itself, and these behaviors should not only be viewed as problematic when occurring alongside eating disorder diagnoses or in adolescents with low BMI,” the authors say.
“Public health campaigns around obesity should include prevention of disordered eating behaviors by addressing weight stigma and avoiding the use of body dissatisfaction as a motivator for weight change; advocating for health as opposed to "healthy weight" or "thinness"; promoting family meals; and encouraging adolescents to exercise for health, well-being, and socialization rather than as a means to achieve weight loss,” they recommend.