Women who were put on diets as young girls are more likely to struggle with obesity, alcohol abuse and disordered eating as adults, according to preliminary research presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior.
"We were able to demonstrate that younger age at first diet actually predicted health problems in the future," wrote the study's principal investigator Pamela Keel in an email to The Huffington Post. If corroborated by further investigation, the findings could lead experts to consider "early dieting" as a risk factor for more serious problems, Keel explained.
Keel and team found that for each year younger at first diet, a woman's risk of these associations became stronger. For example, a woman who first dieted at age 11 would be 14 percent more likely to have an eating disorder, 79 percent more likely to abuse alcohol and 67 percent more likely to be overweight or obese by her thirties than someone who first dieted at 12 years.
Why this association exists remains an open question. Keel, a psychology professor at Florida State University, theorized that food restriction could actually affect neural pathways. "One possibility is that restricting food intake earlier in life may influence brain development in ways that alter sensitivity to rewards, like food and alcohol, that could increase risk for overconsumption and related problems in life," she said.
But like all observational studies, the research doesn't establish causation. It may be that a third factor exists, such as family dynamics or predispositions, influences both early dieting and later behavior with food and alcohol.
Keel and her team surveyed a total of 2,181 college women in 1982, 1992, 2002 and 2012 about their health and dieting habits and followed up with the first three groups 10 years later. The timing of the initial surveys provided an interesting snapshot of the most popular diet trends of the era. For instance, 60 percent of the women surveyed in 1982 endorsed low-calorie diets. Ten years later, in 1992, the most commonly endorsed diet was lowfat. In 2012, the most recent survey of college women, participants were all about the low carbohydrate diet.
"The fact that no one diet remained popular across these different generations of women demonstrates that none of these diets are the 'magic bullet' to successful long-term weight loss," the study's co-author Lauren Holland, a doctoral candidate at FSU, told HuffPost. "This shows that it isn’t the type of diet that is related to unhealthy behaviors later in life, but just the act of dieting itself that is associated with unhealthy behaviors."
Of note, the average age of a woman's first diet rose with each generation: In 1982, the average woman was around 14.6 years old when she first dieted. By 2012, the average age was 15.4 years old. Additionally, as time went on, fewer women reported being on diets overall.
Katherine Balantekin, a dietitian and a doctoral candidate at Penn State who wasn't involved in Keel's study praised the research for pointing out that the age of the first diet is a significant predictor that women would be overweight or obese at the 10-year follow up.
During the course of her own study, Balantekin also found that girls who dieted were more likely to reach an unhealthy body mass index over time, compared to those who didn't diet. Her past research also demonstrated that, unsurprisingly, parents play a huge role in the age of a girl's first diet. Balantekin found that when moms encouraged their daughter to diet by the age of 11, the daughters were twice as likely to report dieting by 11; when both parents encouraged their daughter to diet by 11, the daughter was eight times more likely to report dieting by 11 years.
"While parents may be encouraging their daughter to diet because they are concerned about her weight status, findings from my work indicate that encouragement to diet may actually promote weight gain over time in girls who act on the encouragement and diet," wrote Balantekin in an email to HuffPost. "This is a problem given that heavier girls were more likely to report early dieting."
What Parents Can Do
But just because diets in young children can be harmful and counterproductive, that doesn't mean parents can't set boundaries when it comes to healthy eating habits, said Balantekin. Indeed, in the U.S., where more than one-third of children are overweight and obese, those boundaries are needed more than ever before.
So what's a parent to do? Skip fad diets and don't emphasize restriction, Balantekin recommended. More than anything else, parents should model healthy behaviors, like increased exercise, more fruit and vegetable consumption, and less sugar intake.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that because children are still growing and developing, the goal for most overweight and obese children shouldn't be weight loss. Rather, it's simply to reduce the rate of weight gain as they continue to grow taller.
"Children and teens should NOT be placed on a weight reduction diet without the consultation of a health care provider," reads the CDC site for parents.