The cultural pressure to stay thin affects many women of all ages; some start watching their weight in adolescence or even younger. But the earlier in life a woman starts dieting, the worse long-term consequences it can have for her health, a new study suggests.
In the study, presented Tuesday at the meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior in Seattle, researchers asked 1,340 college-aged women when they first started dieting, and then followed them for 10 years to examine their dieting habits and health later in life. They found that an early age of first dieting was related to extreme weight-control behaviors, greater alcohol consumption and misuse, and a greater chance of being overweight or obese at the 10-year follow-up.
The age of the first diet among women in the study ranged from as young as as 3 years old to 26 years old, study author Pamela Keel, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Florida State University, told CBS News.
"Younger age of dieting predicts greater problems 10 years out from college," Keel said.
It is not completely clear why dieting at an early age may have such an effect on health later in life. One possible reason, Keel said, is that "there is already something different" about women who start dieting at an early age, in terms of their social environment or genetic makeup. Those factors can stay with them throughout life, thus increasing the risk of resorting to extreme dieting and other unhealthy behaviors. In fact, eating disorders are often driven by social, psychological and biological factors, Keel said.
"The study demonstrates that, despite the evidence-based methods we now have available for weight loss, many college-aged women are still turning to fad diet methods rather than seek[ing] professional help," Dr. Holly Lofton of the Weight Management Program at NYU Langone Medical Center told CBS News in an email. "One interesting fact is that, as obesity has increased over the last 20 years in young and older adults, this study found that the average age that women start dieting has decreased."
Lofton added that, since the new study found a link between early dieting and later, risky health behaviors such as abusing alcohol or going on fad diets, "it is important that we as parents, mentors, and health care providers screen young women for these types of behaviors such as fad dieting as it can impact their health negatively for years to come."
The new research is a reminder that, while losing weight is generally good for health, an unbalanced approach may lead to health issues such as eating disorders in the long run, Dr. Karen Cooper, a weight management specialist at the Cleveland Clinic's Women's Health Institute, told CBS News. The key to losing, and, even more importantly, maintaining a healthy weight, she said, is to make permanent lifestyle changes, ideally with the help of a professional.
"For long-lasting results there really needs to be a change in behavior," she said.