How Dieting When You’re Young Can Hurt You Later

Focus on healthy habits you can live with long-term
Teenager at backyard picnic with family

Losing weight often is a good thing. But if you started dieting at an early age, you may have set yourself up for future health problems — especially if you skipped meals or tried fad diets to shed the weight.

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One long-term study found evidence that girls and young women who start dieting at a younger age are more likely to struggle with eating disorders, alcohol problems or obesity as adults. What’s behind these findings?

For many young girls, teenagers and 20-somethings, their relationship with food is more closely tied to looking good than to maintaining good behaviors for a healthy weight, says nutritionist Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, Wellness Manager at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute.

So they may think, for instance, that a short, intense diet in the spring works best to get their bodies in shape for summer each year.

Many young people are strongly motivated by appearances, and that may lead to use extreme measures, Ms. Kirkpatrick says.

“You must make sure you’re setting yourself up for healthy behaviors for life rather than just a quick fix,” she says.

Skipping meals

It may seem like the easiest tactic for dropping weight and controlling it, but regularly skipping meals can actually lead to more weight gain, Ms. Kirkpatrick says.

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Not eating enough or not eating regularly may also slow down the metabolism. This makes it harder for your body to burn calories and fat. When you start eating “normally” again, you could gain weight, she says.

If you don’t eat enough, your body also can develop vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. Low levels of calcium, vitamin B12 and iron all can have an impact on your growth when you’re young and your overall health as you age.

Yo-yo dieting drawbacks

Young people often will go on severely limited diets to quickly drop weight before a special event or occasion. Then, they return to normal eating. This is called yo-yo dieting.

Like skipping meals, yo-yo dieting also slows your metabolism, and can decrease your energy levels. Even when you’re eating regularly again, your metabolism might not return to its previous state.

Recent research also reveals that repeated yo-yo dieting can increase your risk for serious heart problems.

Controlling your weight the right way

As an adult, it’s time to put these poor dieting practices aside — and encourage the same behavior from the young people in your life. If you’re serious about dropping pounds and maintaining a healthy weight, focus on healthy eating habits that you can live with every day.

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Ms. Kirkpatrick offers these tips:

1. Choose nutrient-dense foods. Include several servings of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, as well as healthy protein and fats.

2. Control your portion sizes. Eat slowly — and stop when you’re no longer hungry, not when you’re full. Reaching fullness means you’ve over-fueled.

3. Minimize your liquid calories. Calories that come from soda, alcohol or specialty coffee drinks add up quickly.

4. Learn a few cooking skills. Restaurant meals are notoriously laden with excess fat and salt — and sugar, if you order dessert. If you can make your own meals, you’re less likely to eat out — and you’re more likely to prepare healthier meals and control how much you eat.

“You can always lose weight on a fad diet or with an extreme tactic, but there’s always a chance you’ll put the weight back on,” Ms. Kirkpatrick says. “Being successful means losing weight in healthy ways and keeping it off.”

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