The Dangers of Childhood Dieting

I remember summer time as a time of freedom — eating and moving as we pleased, running wild until dark, when we’d collapse in bed dreaming of the next day’s adventure. School signaled the end of that freedom, when parents became more concerned with schedules and meal timing, especially focusing on what was eaten. Kids who survived on frozen treats all summer were suddenly put on tight eating plans to combat their weight changes. If you’re considering putting your child or teenager on a diet or restrictive meal plan, I strongly urge you to stop.

Childhood is a vulnerable age group

The growing years are a difficult time. It’s a period of rapid growth, physical changes, and low self-esteem compounded with a strong desire to fit in. Children can and should be gaining about 40 pounds during this time as they reach adulthood. They need appropriate nourishment to mature into healthy adults. Focusing on weight loss is counter to these needs and dangerous.

For mental health as well, dieting is extremely risky. A group of middle-schoolers were assessed on various areas around mental health, and those who were currently dieting, had previously been on a diet, and were even thinking about starting a diet, had significantly higher responses to statements such as “I have no hope,” “I have no interest or pleasure,” “I have difficulty concentrating” and “I think about hurting myself.”

Dieting is the most important predictor for eating disorders

Though the cause of eating disorders is a complex interaction between genetic, biological, behavioral, social and psychological factors, dieting also plays a big role in their development. In a three-year study following students 14-15 years old, those who severely restricted their food intake and skipped meals were 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who did not diet, and even those who dieted at a moderate level had a five-times-increased risk of developing an eating disorder. And eating disorders can have lasting negative effects on physical health including poor bone formation, heart disease or weaknesses, cognitive functioning, and elevated risk of mortality.

Dieting leads to weight gain

Dieting is counterproductive for weight management. Numerous studies show that when children and teens restricted their food intake they were more likely to be overweight 3-5 years later than those who did not diet. Did you know that when people are dieting they think about food 20-65% of the day? For comparison, those who don’t restrict their food intake think about food only 15-20% of the time. This is because when food is restricted it gains a lot more importance and can lead to overeating once food is allowed.

Anti-fat stigma increases risk of chronic illness

The obsession around dieting and weight loss is likely because of our fear of fat and the illnesses that may come along. However, weight discrimination and decreased acceptance of fat people has clear negative affects on mental health, self-esteem, and physical well-being. The greater shame that people internalized increased their negative health, with increased likelihood of developing metabolic syndrome (symptoms of which include high blood pressure and sugar, excess abdominal fat and abnormal levels of cholesterol or triglycerides).

Additionally, when people are discriminated against or shamed because of weight, they are more likely to gain more weight. For both males and females, hurtful weight-related comments from family members were associated with the use of unhealthy weight-control behaviors and binge eating. In fact, weight teasing from family predicts overweight status in boys, and the development of binge eating, extreme weight-control behaviors and overweight conditions in girls.

Thin does not equal healthy

Bodies come in all shapes and sizes and no one body type is better or healthier than another. “Health” cannot be assessed by size or weight. When “skinny” is the ideal, any weight-loss attempts can progress to severe restrictions, skipping meals, starvation or purging.

Focusing on weight loss, while risky for adults, is dangerous in childhood. To prevent negative eating habits and behaviors, do not put your child on a diet, healthy eating plan or “lifestyle changes” — code for restrictive eating. Instead, have family meals as often as possible, which is associated with improved food intake and prevention of eating disorders; refrain from talking about weight, teasing or making comments about others’ weight and appearance; and encourage eating well and moving for enjoyment rather than weight loss. When we can stop dieting, we can eat what we like and enjoy what we eat, and real health can exist.

Bracha Kopstick is a Registered Dietitian in Toronto and owner of BeeKay Nutrition. She takes the “diet” out of dietitian and wants you to take it out of your life! As a nutrition expert, Bracha promotes eating home-prepared foods more often and taking time to enjoy what you eat without any associated guilt. She is available for in-person and on-line counseling. Contact her at

1. Jung, A., Ryu, H., Song, K. & Lee, H. (2015). A comparison of dietary habits, weight-control behaviors, eating disorder risk, and depression of middle school girls according to various stages of dieting. Korean Journal of Community Nutrition 20(3) 178-187
2. The National Institute of Mental Health (2016). Eating disorders. Accessed from
3. Golden, N.H., Schneider, M. & Wood, C. (2016). Preventing obesity and eating disorders in adolescents. Pediatrics 138(3).
4. Pause, C. (2013). Discrimination against fat people increases the likelihood of weight gain. Accessed from
5. Kahan, S. & Puhl, R.M. (2017). The damaging effects of weight bias internalization. Obesity 25(2) 280-281
6. The Health at Every Size ® approach.