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Preventing obesity and eating disorders in teens
August 28, 2016, 2:35 pm

Physicians and parents can help prevent obesity and eating disorders among teenagers by avoiding focusing attention of teens’ weight or dieting and instead encourage a healthy, balanced lifestyle.

This new approach was developed in response to increasing concern about teenagers’ use of unhealthy methods to lose weight. Teens who indulge in these unhealthy methods to lose weight, including with use of vomiting, laxatives and diuretics to control weight, may not fit the image of eating-disorder patients, since most are not excessively thin. However, their quick, substantial weight loss can trigger medical consequences seen in people with anorexia nervosa, such as an unstable heart rate.

The new advice is important in part because, although childhood obesity rates have begun to drop, obesity rates in adolescents have not declined. Helping teens maintain healthy weights without veering toward obesity or an eating disorder is more challenging than it is for young children. Adolescents are also dealing with other issues, such as teasing from peers and body-image concerns that may lead them to try unhealthy weight-loss methods like fasting or diet pills and end up in a vicious circle of more weight gain.

Physicians and parents can implement five evidence-based strategies to help teenagers avoid both obesity and eating disorders. Three of these recommendations focus on behaviors to avoid: Parents and doctors should not encourage dieting; should avoid ‘weight talk’, such as commenting on their own weight or their child's weight; and should never tease teens about their weight. Two recommendations focus on behaviors to promote: Families should eat regular meals together, and parents should help their children develop a healthy body image by encouraging them to eat a balanced diet and to exercise for fitness, not weight loss.

Scientific evidence shows that teens who diet early are more likely than their peers to be overweight later. And calorie-counting diets can deprive growing teenagers of the energy they need, and this often leads to symptoms of anorexia nervosa, which may even become life-threatening. Family meals, on the other hand, protect against weight problems as it gives teens an opportunity to see their parents modeling healthy eating. 

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