5 simple steps to prevent teen obesity and eating disorders

Teens diet
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New guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics offer a single approach comprised of five simple and sensible strategies.

While the eating habits of teens may seem to be one of the more mysterious complexities of life, it’s really up to parents to try and at least offer the soundest guidance and modeling. With concern about both teens’ use of unhealthy weight-loss tricks and the continuing problem of obesity, the American Academy of Pediatrics has come up with an evidence-based approach for getting our kids to simply eat well. And to be honest, parents are up against a lot of competition – between junk food marketing and the preponderance of crazy unhealthy food flooding the landscape in combination with the media and cultural obsession with thinness, it’s amazing more of us don’t just completely short-circuit. Or maybe we do and that’s the problem.

Regardless, the new guidelines make so much sense. They may seem oversimple, but they work to build a strong core – and that’s really at the heart of good habits. If we can give kids a solid frame of reference from which to make decisions, it's an anchor that can last a lifetime.

The scientific evidence summarized in the new recommendations reveals that parents can fend off problems at both ends of the weight spectrum by simply focusing on a healthy lifestyle rather than zeroing in on weight or dieting.

"Scientific evidence increasingly shows that for teenagers, dieting is bad news," says Neville Golden, MD, professor of pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine and a lead author of the new guidelines. Teens who diet in ninth grade are three times more likely than their peers to be overweight in 12th grade, he notes. As well, teens need food! Calorie-counting diets can deprive growing bodies of the energy they require and lead to symptoms of anorexia nervosa, even when the teen may not look overly thin.

The five steps are recommended for all teens, not just those who may have weight problems:

1. Parents and doctors should not encourage dieting.

2. Parents should avoid "weight talk," such as commenting on their own weight or their child's weight.

"Mothers who talk about their own bodies and weights can inadvertently encourage their kids to have body dissatisfaction, which we see in half of teen girls and a quarter of boys," Golden says.

3. Parents should never tease teens about their weight.

4. Families should eat regular meals together.
Family meals protect against weight problems, although the why behind that is known for sure. Golden thinks it may be partly because teenagers get to see their parents modeling healthy eating.

5. Parents should help their children develop a healthy body image by encouraging them to eat a balanced diet and to exercise for fitness, not weight loss.

The new guidelines are published in the journal Pediatrics.

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