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Teens' Diets Often Backfire

Study finds boomerang effect in both sexes

MONDAY, Oct. 6, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Teenagers take their weight into their own hands when they go on diets, but not in the way you might think.

Even when a variety of factors were taken into account, adolescents who dieted frequently actually gained more weight each year than other children, says new research.

Both male and female dieters suffered about equally from the boomerang effect of dieting, which appeared to boost their weight by about an average of about two pounds per year over other teens.

"Most people who diet tend to regain the weight. In children, we're really seeing that this is happening at a young age," says study co-author Alison Field, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

Field and her colleagues studied the dietary habits of 8,203 girls and 6,769 boys who were between 9 and 14 years old in 1996. All the subjects were children of nurses, and more than 90 percent were white.

The findings appear in the October issue of Pediatrics.

At the beginning of the study, 25 percent of the girls and 13.8 percent of the boys were frequent dieters. Over three years, the dieting children gained more weight on average than the kids who didn't diet. "Even after we took into account how much they'd grown and the amount of time spent in front of the TV, we still found that the children who were dieting gained more weight than their non-dieting peers," Field says.

The reasons for the weight gain aren't entirely clear, but there are several theories. One possibility is that repeated dieting changes the metabolism of the body so it doesn't process food as effectively. "A more likely explanation is that they're overeating when they're not following their restrictive diets," Field says. "There's a lot of speculation that dieting leads to binge eating, which leads to more weight gain and more dieting."

Field, however, isn't recommending that teens avoid dieting. She says the solution to obesity, a growing problem among young and old Americans, is a mix of exercise and sensible eating.

"Certainly the recommendation for children and parents alike who want to lose weight would be to make more modest changes that they can stick with -- drink a can of soda instead of a 20-ounce bottle, limit the amount of supersizing they do, and increase physical activity."

Heidi Reichenberger, a Boston nutritionist and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says overly restrictive diets lead to trouble among those who think they weigh too much.

"They forbid themselves to eat any of their favorite foods. They tend to cut way down on calories. And a lot of teens, even a lot of grownups, think if they skip meals they'll lose weight, they skip breakfast or skip lunch," she says. "If you do that for days or weeks, it really adds up, and it gets really hard to control the cravings, the desires and the hunger."

The key for teens is to find an expert to give them advice about nutrition, says Reichenberger, who works at a Boston high school. "They may be able to find one right in their school [if] they ask their doctor or school nurse or coach."

More information

Learn more about nutrition and dieting from the American Dietetic Association or KidsHealth.

SOURCES: Alison Field, Sc.D., assistant professor, pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston; Heidi Reichenberger, R.D., spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association, Boston; October 2003 Pediatrics
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