The vast majority of pediatricians track a child’s BMI beginning at birth to identify children who are too heavy or too thin, as there are health consequences of both. Childhood obesity has been linked to diabetes, heart disease, asthma, sleep disorders and more. For those children identified as overweight, a supervised diet, exercise program and a change in behavior is often advised.
When health is not at issue, experts agree that the term “diet” shouldn’t be used with children or teenagers, as there are many physical and emotional consequences of this. One study was recently performed with middle school students. Researchers asked students of a normal weight if they ever intended to follow a diet in the future. The study followed up with these students a number of years later and found that those who answered yes actually weighed more on average than those with no intentions of dieting. The very act of dieting can lead to weight problems and isn’t advised for most children.
Studies also find that children who diet also suffer from physical problems later that may be irreversible. The most common problem is nutritional and vitamin deficiencies, which can lead to osteoporosis, stunted growth and delayed puberty. Because bones grow quickly during childhood and don’t reach the peak mass until 20, children following a restrictive diet may end up with brittle bones that break.
It seems nearly every approach to dieting in kids has some kind of problem associated with it. If the diet has too few calories, even if it is balanced, stunted development and growth can occur. This leads to delayed menstruation for girls. Diets with too little protein inhibit muscle growth, although too little fat blocks the body’s absorption of vitamins K, D, A and E. Children who are underweight with too little body fat tend to have a poor immune system with frequent illnesses, while a low carb diet leads to a deficiency of vitamins C and B, iron and potassium. There has also been research that shows a low-carb diet in children is linked to concentration problems, poor school performance and problems learning.
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Finally, dieting in young children promotes body image problems, eating disorders and a habit of yo-yo dieting as they grow older. Anorexia and bulimia are now known to be very serious disorders that lead to stunted growth, illness and death in some cases. Many experts also warn that fad diets are in no way appropriate for young kids because they don’t teach them how to eat healthy and give them no basis to rely on as they grow. Instead of learning how to eat healthy foods every day and make the right choices, children are switching from diet to diet, going off the plan and going back to their typical eating patterns for the rest of their lives.
Many popular diet programs today are now excluding children, although this wasn’t always the case. Weight Watchers does not accept children under the age of 10 any longer, and children between 10 and 16 need a doctor’s note to be considered for the program. Jenny Craig allows children 13 and older, while Slim-Fast and Nutrisystem are designed only for individuals over the age of 18.
Unfortunately, many children today are counting calories and concerned about their weight with no real understanding of proper nutrition or portion control. Instead of allowing children to participate in diet plans, parents should teach their children healthy eating habits and the importance of physical activity to fight childhood obesity.