A recent National Center For Health Statistics study found that many teens today are dieting and trying to lose weight. The attitudes and behaviors reported in the study were alarmingly similar to eating disorder thoughts and behaviors.
As a parent, you can be a major influence on your son or daughter’s beliefs. Here are nine diet and nutrition myths that teens may believe, along with the facts about each misconception.
I Should Always Choose Low-Calorie Foods
Choosing low-calorie foods was one of the dieting methods teens reported using in the study. There are two major problems with this tactic. The first is the danger of nutritional deficiencies. The second is the focus on counting calories. Teens may become obsessed with controlling their caloric intake, and this obsession can quickly lead to eating disorder thoughts or behaviors.
Skipping Meals Will Help Me Lose Weight
Many teens believe that skipping meals will help them lose weight or stay at a healthy weight. In the National Center for Health Statistics study, 16.5% of teens reported using this tactic for weight loss. The truth is that skipping meals often leads to eating more food later. This is also an unhealthy way to diet since it mimics the behavior of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa.
As a parent, try to be aware of your child’s eating habits and look for patterns of skipping meals. For example, they might skip the family dinner, claiming they already ate at a friend’s house, or refuse to let you pack them lunch.
Certain Food Groups Are Bad and Should Be Avoided
Negative attitudes about certain foods are deeply ingrained in our culture. Your teen has probably heard many of these messages. Some examples include:
- Fats are bad
- Carbohydrates make you gain weight
- Sugar should be completely cut out of your diet
- Gluten and/or dairy should be avoided
These statements are all false. The truth is that a healthy diet consists of a balanced mix of the different food groups. Cutting out all of a certain food group can lead to nutrient deficiencies and even an eating disorder. The only reason to cut out a type of food is in the case of physician order due to medical need.
Diet Soda and Other Sugar-Free Foods Are Better for Me
Diet foods are marketed as healthier alternatives to our favorite treats. Diet soda, sugar-free candy, and other products promise “guilt-free splurging.” This is a dangerous attitude to have. Teens should not feel guilty for eating a certain type of food. This can escalate and lead to a preoccupation with “good” and “bad” foods, restricting certain foods, and other behaviors associated with eating disorders.
I Can’t Eat Any Dessert or Treats If I Want to Be Healthy
An occasional treat is a healthy part of any teen’s diet. Restricting all desserts can intensify cravings for sweets and trigger binging, or even binge eating disorder. Allow your teen to eat a balanced diet that incorporates the occasional sweet treat. This teaches your son or daughter that they don’t have to put any foods “off-limits.”
Fad Diets Are Popular, So They Must Work
There are always new fad diets that gain in popularity. Some of the latest ones include the high-fat, low-carb keto diet; detoxification diets; and intermittent fasting, a diet that consists of eating during certain timeframes and fasting during others.
The problem with any diet is the unhealthy methods it promotes. Restricting food intake or eating times can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. This can quickly spiral into disordered eating.
Going Vegetarian or Vegan Is the Best Way to Lose Weight
Many people choose a vegetarian or vegan diet because of their personal beliefs. However, there is a common misconception that these diets are a good way to lose weight. Teens who decide to go vegetarian or vegan for this reason may be in danger of nutritional deficiencies.
I Need to Exercise for Hours Every Day to Lose Weight
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (2nd edition) recommends “150 minutes, or 2 hours and 30 minutes, of moderate-intensity physical activity each week.” However, many teens believe that they need to be exercising for hours every day to maintain a healthy weight. Exercise was also the most common weight loss tactic reported by teens in the National Center for Health Statistics study; 83.5% of teens reported using this method.
Compulsive over-exercising is one of the symptoms of an eating disorder in teens. Although it can occur in any eating disorder, it’s closely associated with bulimia nervosa. If your teen spends a lot of time at the gym, or exercising at home, talk to them about realistic levels of physical activity.
I Need to Be Really Skinny or Have Huge Muscles to Be Attractive
Perhaps one of the most dangerous myths teens believe is that they need to look a certain way to be attractive. Girls are exposed to images of ultra-thin celebrities, while teenage boys are bombarded with images of muscular men.
The truth is that these body types are virtually impossible to achieve. Many of the photos we see in the media are modified with photo editing software, which means the appearances are not attainable. Teens may damage their health or develop an eating disorder in an effort to achieve the “ideal” look. As a parent, perhaps the most important thing you can do for your teen is to model a healthy body image.
If your teen believes any of these myths, it’s time to have a talk about healthy eating and exercise habits. These attitudes are dangerous and any one of them can lead to an eating disorder.
Seeds of Hope has a free eating disorder self-assessment for your teen to take. You can also take it on behalf of your teen to see if they could have an eating disorder. Keep in mind that these results don’t take the place of a formal assessment from a medical professional. However, the test can give you a starting place to have a discussion with your teen about their behavior. Also be sure to talk to your child’s doctor or a mental health professional about your concerns.