As if our teenagers don’t have enough to worry about at the moment, it seems more of them than ever are obsessed with their weight.
In 2015, 42% of 14-year-old girls and boys said they were trying to lose weight, compared to 30% in 2005.
So a research team from University College London and the universities of Edinburgh and Liverpool set about reviewing data from 22,503 adolescents born in three different decades – 1970, 1991-92 and 2000-2002.
The researchers found that in 2015, 44% and 60% of all participants had dieted or exercised to lose weight, respectively, compared to 38% and 7% in 1986, which shows a large shift.
Lead study author psychiatrist Dr Francesca Solmi said: “Our findings show how the way we talk about weight, health and appearance can have profound impacts on young people’s mental health, and efforts to tackle rising obesity rates may have unintended consequences.
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“An increase in dieting among young people is concerning because experimental studies have found that dieting is generally ineffective in the long term at reducing body weight in adolescents, but can instead have greater impacts on mental health.
“We know, for instance, that dieting is a strong risk factor in the development of eating disorders.”
Senior author Dr Praveetha Patalay added: “It seems that young people are exercising for different reasons than they did before – more adolescents seem to be thinking of exercise predominantly as a means to lose weight rather than exercising for fun, socialising and feeling healthy.
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“We suspect controversial calls to add ‘exercise-equivalent’ labels on food packaging may exacerbate this.”
Both girls and boys also became more likely to overestimate their weight from 1986 to 2005, and even more so by 2015, which the researchers said added to concerns that increased efforts to lose weight are not necessarily due to increased obesity rates.
It seems exercising just to lose weight rather than to stay fit and healthy, plus imagining you’re more overweight than you actually are, are linked to depressive symptoms.
Among girls this link was becoming even stronger over the three decades examined in this study.
It’s possible the findings could be part of the explanation for increases in adolescent depression that have been seen in recent decades.
Dr Solmi said: “Media portrayals of thinness, the rise of the fitness industry and advent of social media may all partly explain our results, and public health messaging around calorie restriction and exercise might also be causing unintended harm.”