A bit of real talk: I, being a person of the female persuasion who was raised in the United States, started stressing about my weight when I was approximately 9 years old. It’s 20 years later, and I’ve since calmed down about things. But that’s not the story for many girls who start dieting young, according to some new research presented this week at the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior’s annual meeting (and initially reported on by Health Day — neither the abstract or paper is yet available online).
The researchers found an association between dieting at a young age and some major health issues down the line — obesity, eating disorders, and even substance abuse. The oldest first-time dieter in the study was 26; the youngest was only 3, Pamela Keel, a Florida State University psychologist and a co-author of the research, said in an email to Science of Us.
Keel explained more about the link between youthful dieting and health consequences in adulthood:
One possibility is that restricting food intake earlier in life may influence brain development in ways that alter sensitivity to rewards, like food and alcohol, that could increase risk for overconsumption and related problems later in life.
Another factor to consider is that there are already important differences between someone who goes on her first diet when she is 7 years old and someone who goes on her first diet when she is 17 years old. These differences may contribute to later differences in risk for extreme weight control behaviors, obesity, and alcohol misuse. In this case, dieting at a younger age may serve as a sign that someone is at increased risk.
Recent research has also shown that a girl who is called fat is at higher risk for becoming obese when she becomes a teenager. It’s yet more evidence that our earliest experiences shape the rest of our lives in ways of which we’re not even entirely aware.