At a time when fad diets urge the elimination of healthful foods, and social media feeds display unattainably fit bodies, nobody picked up on the early signs that Paige Sklar was developing an eating disorder.
When she was a high school senior, Sklar cut out bread and dairy and worked out daily after an Army recruiter told her she’d need to lose weight to join. To most, Sklar’s efforts didn’t seem worrisome, but weight loss had become an obsession for her. “The number on the scale controlled my life,” she says.
Nearly all teens struggle with their eating, activity, or weight. But parents can help.
Most teens who start a weight loss plan don’t develop a clinical eating disorder like Sklar did, but research from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health suggests that nearly all teens (98 percent of girls and 93 percent of boys) struggle at some point with an eating, activity, or weight issue—in other words, with unhealthy body habits.
And those body struggles include routines that many parents might consider normal for a teenager—a boy who avoids all physical activity; a girl who complains about looking too fat; or, like Sklar, the teen who nixes certain food groups and exercises excessively. (See box below for the unhealthy markers tracked in this study.)
“My mom thought this was just me trying to be healthier,” says Sklar, now a college senior who works for the National Eating Disorders Association.
But while these might be common teen behaviors, they can be harmful for developing adolescents, both in the short-term and in the long-term. Unhealthy habits can lead to body image, activity, and eating issues that continue into adulthood.
“We live in a culture that makes it easy to be concerned about your weight and hard to feel good about yourself,” says lead author Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a University of Minnesota professor and author of I’m, Like, SO Fat! Helping Your Teen Make Healthy Choices About Eating and Exercise in a Weight-Obsessed World.
To help teens grow into healthier adults, Neumark-Sztainer and Stephanie Zerwas, a UNC-Chapel Hill associate professor of psychiatry, say many parents must flip their thinking about diets and body image.
How To Help Develop Healthy Body Habits
Here’s what parents can do:
Model healthy behaviors
Take part in regular physical activity that you enjoy and engage in healthy, but not perfect, eating habits. “It’s okay to eat a piece of cake and say, ‘I enjoyed that cake,’ instead of, “Oh my God, I feel so bad about that,’” says Neumark-Sztainer. Work on showing that eating and movement are healthy human pleasures, not sources of guilt.
Help them make healthy choices
Stock up on healthy foods, so hungry teens always have wholesome choices available. And encourage fun, daily movement. A walk around the neighborhood will do. “You don’t have to have a burpee competition after dinner,” Zerwas says.
Be there and listen
If your teen faces criticism because of their size, don’t offer weight loss advice. “Just be there and acknowledge how they are feeling and let them know that’s not okay,” Neumark-Sztainer says. If they want to lose weight, she says, tell them it’s best to take pounds out of the equation because people come in different shapes and sizes. But, she says, let them know you’ll help them eat healthier and be more active.
Stop talking about your weight
Never say you feel guilty about eating a big meal, and never complain about your body’s size. You should also refrain from pointing out the size of others’ bodies and making assumptions about their lifestyles. “You can have somebody who is extremely active and fit and happy, while their body size is on a higher percentage on a growth curve,” Zerwas says.
Know the warning signs
Extreme weight loss, diet restrictions, and daily worries about their eating can all be red flags that teens’ food and activity issues need expert attention. If you’re worried, contact your pediatrician or call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. Parents, says Sklar, often are teens’ first line of defense.
“If parents know the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder and they are just more aware,” she says, “people will get the help they need much earlier.”
The University of Minnesota flagged the following behaviors as unhealthy body habits.
These habits are not all equally troublesome, but taken together they suggest that unhealthy habits are widespread among teens.
- High fast-food intake: Eating fast food three or more times a week
- Low physical activity: Less than 150 minutes per week
- Unhealthy weight control practices: Including eating very little food, taking diet pills, making themselves vomit, using laxatives
- High body dissatisfaction: Participants’ level of happiness with 10 different body parts—height, weight, body shape, waist, hips, thighs, stomach, face, body build, and shoulders
- Obesity: Based on their Body Mass Index, or BMI, which was calculated using self-reported height and weight