Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital found children who diet to lose or maintain weight may actually be doing the reverse. A study published in the October 2003 issue of Pediatrics showed frequent dieting among kids aged nine to 14 was not only ineffective, but may ultimately lead to weight gain.
"Our nationwide study found that as many as one in four American children under the age of 14 were dieting," said Alison Field, ScD, BWH researcher, in a news release. "Given the alarming increase in the percentage of children who are overweight, we felt it was important to understand whether dieting, which is common, particularly among girls, was helpful or actually contributing to the obesity epidemic."
At the start of the study, the research team found approximately 30 percent of girls and 16 percent of the boys were dieting. During three years of follow-up, they found that although the children who said they were dieters reported being more active and eating fewer calories than their peers, they actually gained more weight than non-dieters.
An example cited by the study was the case of a 14-year old girl, who as a frequent dieter, gained approximately two more pounds annually than girls her same age who did not diet. Girls who dieted less often gained slightly less weight, but still significantly more than non-dieters.
"At a time when we need solutions to encourage healthy eating habits, it is troubling to see that dieting, which is often characterized by short term and not necessarily healthy changes in eating, is so common,” noted Field, also of Harvard Medical School. "Our study found that dieting was counterproductive -- children who dieted gained more, not less, weight than non-dieters."
Field and her team provided several possible explanations for the findings. The most likely is that dieting may lead to a cycle of restrictive eating, followed by bouts of overeating or binge eating. (Therefore, the subjects' overeating repeatedly between diets could have led to the weight gain.)
When BWH researchers studied the mothers of these children, they found behaviors and/or lifestyle factors associated with weight control were established by late adolescence. However, this research suggests that dieting behaviors may manifest themselves at a much younger age:
"It is becoming increasingly important for parents and physicians to intervene and break bad eating and weight control habits early on," said Field.
"Although for children and adolescents who are overweight, diets carefully supervised by a clinician may be beneficial and appropriate, our results suggest that casual dieting to control weight loss in the long term is not only ineffective, it may actually promote weight gain."
This story was adapted from a news release provided by Brigham and Women's Hospital Research Web Site.
Article originally published on March 18, 2004.