Unhealthy Eating Habits Start Early

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Updated: 6/18/2012 11:28 am

June 24, 2011 -- Girls and boys who develop unhealthy eating or extreme dieting habits as adolescents are likely to carry those potentially dangerous weight control practices into adulthood.

A new study shows that more than half of teenage girls and one-third of teenage boys used unhealthy eating habits like fasting, skipping meals, or smoking more cigarettes to control their weight, and many continued these habits through young adulthood.

Researchers also found the number of young adolescents who used extreme weight control measures like taking diet pills, making themselves vomit, and using diuretics or laxatives increased as they entered adulthood from 8% to 20% among girls. These extreme measures increased from 2% to 7% from middle adolescence to middle young adulthood among boys.

"Given the growing concern about obesity, it is important to let young people know that dieting and disordered eating behaviors can be counterproductive to weight management," researcher Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, RD, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, says in a news release. "Young people concerned about their weight should be provided support for healthful eating and physical activity behaviors that can be implemented on a long-term basis, and should be steered away from the use of unhealthy weight control practices."

Unhealthy Eating Habits Linger

In the study, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, researchers looked at the prevalence and persistence of unhealthy and extreme weight control practices and binge eating in a group of 2,287 adolescents who were followed for about 10 years. The participants included a younger group that started the study at age 12 and an older group that started at about age 16.

The study showed about half of the girls and a fourth of the boys reported dieting in the past year, and this number remained consistent from adolescence through young adulthood among girls. The number of boys dieting significantly increased from middle adolescence to middle young adulthood.

The prevalence of unhealthy weight control behaviors, such as fasting, eating very little food, using a food substitute (powder or special drink), skipping meals, and smoking more cigarettes, remained consistent among approximately one-third of males from adolescence to adulthood.

Among girls, these unhealthy eating habits increased slightly among the youngest from 48% to 51% as they entered early adulthood and decreased slightly from 61% to 54% among the older group as they approached middle adulthood.

The study showed that the use of extreme weight control measures increased significantly in both age groups of girls and among the older boys as they entered adulthood.

For example, researchers say they use of diet pills more than tripled in most of the age and sex groups during the 10-year study period, and one-fifth of young female adults reported the use of extreme weight control measures.

Researchers say participants who engaged in unhealthy diet and eating habits during adolescence were more likely to engage in those same behaviors 10 years later, which suggests a need for early and ongoing prevention efforts.

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