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Children and Teens who Diet May Gain Weight Rather than Lose It

Oct. 6, 2003 -- Children and teens who constantly go on and off diets to lose weight may actually end up gaining extra pounds in the long run.

A new study shows that girls who were frequent dieters gained about two extra pounds per year, and boys who were dieters gained more than two extra pounds per year compared with nondieters.

Researchers say the findings show that putting overweight children on restrictive diets not only doesn't help them lose weight, but it also promotes unhealthy eating habits that can last a lifetime.

For example, the study showed that girls who were frequent dieters were 12 times more likely than nondieters to engage in binge eating, and boys who dieted were seven times more likely to become binge eaters.

Children and Dieting Don't Mix

For the study, researchers followed a group of 8,200 girls and 6,770 boys for three years starting in 1996. They were 9 to 14 years of age. Participants filled out annual questionnaires about dieting, weight change, exercise, and eating habits.

Researchers found that nearly 30% of the girls and 16% of the boys were dieters at the start of the study. During the three-year follow-up, the study showed that dieters consistently gained more weight than nondieters, with dieters gaining an average of nearly two more pounds per year more than nondieters.

The results appear in the October issue of Pediatrics.

Dieters were also much more likely to engage in binge eating, defined as eating large amounts of food in a short period of time and feeling out of control in the situation -- such as eating an entire box of cookies and feeling that you couldn't stop even if you wanted to.

"What we think is happening is that the more frequently they dieted, the more frequently they would binge eat or overeat in between these dieting episodes, and that would lead to their weight gain," says researcher Alison Field, ScD, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

Field says this study is among the first to look at the long-term effect of dieting in children and teens, and the findings show that it's wrought with many of the same problems that affect adults who try to lose weight with the latest fad diet.

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