NEW YORK – Dieting, the conscious control or restriction of the diet to lose weight, has a long and colorful history. One of the first dietitians was the English doctor George Cheyne. Because he was tremendously overweight, Cheyne began a vegetarian diet, consuming only milk and vegetables. He lost a lot of weight and soon regained his health. In 1724, he wrote a book in which he recommended fresh air and avoiding calories-rich foods to lose weight.
In 1903, U.S. President William Howard Taft pledged to slim down after he got stuck in a bathtub in the White House. In the 1950s, according to legend, the famous Greek opera singer Maria Callas dropped 65 pounds (a little more than 29 kg) on the “tapeworm diet,” after swallowing a pill containing the parasite. Lord Byron, the famous English poet, popularized the “vinegar diet” in the 1820s. In order to cleanse his body he would drink plenty of vinegar and water daily.
Today, dieting to lose weight is practiced worldwide, including adolescents and young people. Although in many cases it may be good for people’s health, when diets are followed in an unsupervised way — particularly by adolescents who want to be excessively slim — it can be dangerous.
Although teenagers may have many reasons for dieting, body image dissatisfaction and a desire to be thinner are the usual motivating factors. Adolescents, primarily females, are also targeted by unrealistically thin images in the media that they wrongly equate with beauty, health and personal success. Because society places a high value on youth and physical beauty, adolescents try to imitate those images in the media. As a result, adolescents often engage in unhealthy, unnecessary and unsupervised attempts to lose weight.
To lose weight, many teenagers engage in a series of behavioral changes and alterations in their eating habits, such as fad dieting, fasting, skipping meals, using laxatives, practicing self-provoked vomiting and using dangerous supplements or drugs. It has been shown that dieting in teenagers increase in frequency with age and is more prevalent among girls. However, there is no socioeconomic or ethnic group immune to body dissatisfaction and weight loss behavior.
When teens do not consume enough calories they may become weak, tired and moody. Also, because insufficient calories may affect the functioning of their brains, they may become unable to make the right food decisions, which can even affect their learning process at school. If food restriction is greater, it may affect their bones, heart and other organs, and in extreme situations they may even die due to malnourishment.
Some teens may use diuretics (water pills), diet pills, tobacco or other drugs in an effort to control their weight. However, these substances can provoke serious damage to their organs and, in the case of nicotine in cigarettes or amphetamines in certain diet pills they may lead to addiction and overall damage to their health.
It has been found that teenagers affected by chronic illness such as diabetes, asthma, attention deficit disorder, and epilepsy are more prone to be dissatisfied with their bodies and practice unhealthy weight loss behaviors. In addition, teenagers with significant psychiatric symptoms such as depression and anxiety are also more likely to engage in unhealthy dieting practices.
Teenagers who engage in weight-loss strategies, particularly when they are unsupervised, are also more likely to practice other risky behaviors such as substance abuse, unprotected sex and suicide attempts. Girls who are overly concerned about their weight or who are dieting are more likely to start smoking.
To prevent youngsters from following dangerous dieting practices, parents and teachers should teach teenagers the difference between “healthy weight” and “cosmetically desirable weight.” Teenagers should be encouraged to accept a realistic weight for themselves.
Parents and teachers should encourage adolescents to engage in activities such as sports, artistic endeavors and participation in community activities that would provide them with a positive self-image. Children like to imitate their parents, teachers and other role models. It is up to them to help prevent the abuse of diets or other activities to slim down among adolescents, and help them create a positive image of their own bodies.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and the author of “Health of Adolescents and Youth in the Americas.”
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