Fewer Teens Are Trying to Lose Weight Anymore — Despite Rising Obesity Rates

Is it acceptance, technology or?
Group of young people taking a selfie in a restaurant

More of today’s teens are overweight and obese. But they’re not dieting as much as their counterparts 30 years ago.

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A recent study looked at three different groups of teens between the ages of 16 and 19 during three different decades. What they found was that the percentage of teens who were overweight and obese climbed from 22 to 34% between the first time the group was surveyed (that was between 1988 and 1994) and when the most recent group was surveyed (between 2009 and 2014).

At the same time, the number of teens who reported trying to lose weight declined from about 34% to 27%.

It’s hard to say what’s the cause

Psychologist Leslie Heinberg, PhD, did not take part in the study, but says experts know that obesity is on the rise in our younger population. However, she says it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact cause for the changes in behavior shown in the study.

“As our society has gotten bigger, there has been more acceptance of different body sizes — and that’s a good thing,” says Dr. Heinberg. “But the flip side of that maybe is that there could be less motivation to make changes when changes are needed — when people are having deleterious health effects because of their weight.”

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While obesity is a growing problem in the U.S., it’s important that teens are using healthy measures for weight control and lifestyle change, Dr. Heinberg says.

Increasing activity, cutting back on eating out, and eating more fruits and vegetables are all healthy ways to try to lose weight, she notes.

However, Dr. Heinberg warns that teens looking to lose weight will sometimes engage in skipping meals, using diet pills or disordered eating behaviors, which can all have negative health consequences.

Technology could be a factor

She also points out that unlike the teens of 30 years ago, today’s teens have much more information at their fingertips, and not all of that information is helpful.

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“There is a lot of diet information out in the world — on the internet, on social media and the vast majority of it is not helpful,” says Dr. Heinberg. “The vast majority of it sets people up for weight re-gain and sets people up for developing bad habits.” 

When talking to teens about issues involving weight, Dr. Heinberg says it’s best to keep the conversation centered around healthy habits and the benefits of a healthy lifestyle instead of focusing on weight and numbers.

“If you devalue your body … If you have disparaging thoughts about your body, you’re not going to want to take very good care of it,” she says. “Helping people achieve body acceptance for where they’re at is actually associated with them engaging in more exercise and a healthier diet.”

Complete results of the research can be found in JAMA Pediatrics.

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