Dieting associated with risky behaviors in teenage girls

Investigating associations between dieting and other health-compromising behaviors among adolescent girls.

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Underweight remains an important health risk for a significant portion of younger adolescents, especially in teenage girls. The girls used to think that dieting is an easy way to be healthy and stay at a weight. But there is a drawback, too.

The latest study by the University of Waterloo discovered that teenage girls who diet are more likely to engage in other health-compromising behaviors, including smoking, binge drinking, and skipping breakfast. They are more likely to engage in one or more clusters of other risky behaviors three years later.

Amanda Raffoul, who led the study and is now a Ph.D. candidate in Public Health and Health Systems, said, “It might seem natural for there to be a connection between dieting and behaviors such as smoking and skipping meals, but the explanation is not so clear for something like binge drinking. Our findings suggest that dieting and other risky health behaviors may be related to common underlying factors, such as poor body image.”

“The link between dieting and other health-compromising behaviors is worrisome since 70 percent of girls reported dieting at some point over the three years. Post-puberty changes often lead to weight gain among girls, and there is incredible pressure from social media and elsewhere to obtain and maintain the ideal body.”

Obtaining data from 3386 adolescent Ontario girls, scientists found that dieters were 1.6 times more likely to smoke and skip breakfast and 1.5 times more likely to smoke and engage in binge drinking.

Raffoul added, “Intentional weight loss is not something we should necessarily encourage, especially among this population, since it’s possible that well-meaning initiatives that promote dieting may be doing more harm than good. Instead, we should focus on health broadly rather than weight as an indicator of health.”

Sharon Kirkpatrick, a professor in the School of Public Health and Health Systems and co-author on the study, said, “This study points to the importance of looking at factors related to health, including behaviors and the array of influences on them, in combination. Only by understanding the complex ways in which these factors interact can we identify effective interventions, as well as predict and monitor potential unintended effects of such interventions.”

The findings are published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.