What are some reasons that a young person might go on a diet?

As a parent, which of those reasons should be a concern for me?

  • 3
    I think we need more context - age, type of "dieting", reasons to do so...
    – Stephie
    May 11, 2015 at 13:25
  • Please clarify if it is your child who wants to diet and why, or if it's you who wants them to diet. More information would be helpful here and would make it a better question, and easier to answer well. May 12, 2015 at 10:46
  • @YoungParent, when in doubt about whether a child's diet is well-founded, ask the pediatrician to put in his or her two cents. May 31, 2015 at 5:30

3 Answers 3


There are a few possible motivations for starting a diet.

  • Actually being overweight.

While this may seem a good reason for a child to be on a diet, it's actually still not highly advisable. Restricting calorie intake and snacks can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and poor self-image in the long term, and raise the risk of eating disorders. It's also possible that important nutrients will be missed out on if the focus is too much on just eliminating calories, which is never healthy but can be even worse for a child who's still growing. Paradoxically, a calorie-restricted diet can even lead to weight gain.

Parents can encourage a better approach by looking at ways to build healthier long-term habits. Teach children about different types of food and how they affect energy levels and overall health, looking at reasons beyond just weight control. Emphasize the importance of combining physical activity with a healthy diet. Parents can lead by example, and also get advice and guidance from a pediatrician or nutritionist. (Just as kids can easily underestimate or overestimate their body size, so can parents.)

  • Poor body image: feeling too tall or too fat, or too short, or too scrawny.

This can come from a number of external sources: teasing from peers, media influences, even family members who obsess about their own weight can all cause a child to become focused on (and critical of) their own body shape.

A related motivation may be participation in a sport that emphasizes weight or size limits (including, but not limited to, wrestling, ballet, or gymnastics). In this case the influence is even stronger, since there's often an apparently responsible adult who's actively discouraging normal growth (sometimes overtly, sometimes inadvertently just by praising smaller classmates).

If dieting gets out of control, it can transform into an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia. This is much more serious than "casual" diets, perhaps the most extreme expression of personal dissatisfaction and also the most dangerous. Some useful pages for further reading are Eating Disorders: What Families Need to Know (many links to additional research and resources) and When Young Children Have Eating Disorders (see "What Can Parents Do?"). In addition, seeking help from a medical and/or psychological professional is important when things have reached that point.

Speaking anecdotally, I had a friend who had to miss a year of high school because she was getting treatment for anorexia. It's not just an issue of calories, it's deep-seated dissatisfaction with personal appearance -- she ended up with significant medical and psychological problems that took time to work through. It's definitely worth intervening before things reach that point.


What are some reasons that a young person might go on a diet?

I think the most common reason is "for fun". They hear about it in the media and want to try it out. This kind of dieting usually doesn't last long, and, even when in full force, it rarely excludes desserts or sweets.

Even a young person may be genuinely overweight. Subject to peer or societal pressure, some may choose to diet. In such cases, it may be important to check the facts behind their dieting plan and make sure the diet isn't too extreme.

Another reason is compassion for animals, and not wanting to support industries where animals raised for food are treated inhumanely. I'm a meat eater myself, but I do sometimes get pangs of guilt when reading about the conditions that the animals live and die in.

As a parent, which of those reasons should be a concern for me?

Significantly rarer reasons include the more worrysome condition of anorexia.

  • 1
    Do you have some statistics about "for fun" and/or anorexia occurrence rates?
    – Acire
    May 11, 2015 at 21:15

Supposing you're talking about a kid like 10 years old or so. A point where they need their nutrition, but you can see they're on the slope to a bad weight and possible ridicule in middle and high school...

I'd say you shouldn't think of it as a diet more so than a change in habits. Typically, people think of a diet as a temporary and radical change in food / exercise routines intended to produce relatively immediate results. But if you are intending to encourage healthier weight gain and development in a kid who has so far been raised in a fast food type culture (or some equivalent that results in childhood obesity, generally overweight, etc) then a diet is likely a passive term used to represent a shift in overall eating habits that is not intended to be temporary or produce immediate results.

My wife is a 5th grade teacher. Many of the kids live off some of the most toxic things (like flaming hot cheetos) and it is against district policy to refuse these foods in the school. I say this because I have seen how different a kid's body can be when this is the normal food sources they have available to them.

Snacks and treats don't always have to be carrot sticks and water. Frozen yogurts, depending on the brand and whether or not it is organic, can seamlessly replace ice cream. Almond milk, or other milk alternatives, can fairly well replace milk, and is enormously less disgusting in process. There are many whole grain breads that aren't "gross" to kids. You'll have to try a few to test those waters. The list goes on.

Passive recreation will also affect weight. Many kids these days prefer video games and tv over active play. It may be hard to convert a game player to a rock climber, but many fail to interest their kids because they land on typical options like football and soccer and don't consider that there are a zillion physical activities out there. Playing paintball trumps playing Call of Duty every time. Just most kids don't know paintball is an option. Or, common physical activities are just so expensive. To that I say there's always a way.

I could go on for days about conversion to healthier eating and recreation, but knowing what will work begins with knowing the kid. As the parent you know whether or not your kid loves ice cream or insists doritos are the only thing they'll eat. You'd have to research one by one what a healthy alternative to those things are and patiently work them into the routines. And at some point, you may just have to say no.

You might discover through the process that your kid enjoys food much more when the time is taken to make it delicious and healthy. I didn't believe much in rigid healthy eating when I was younger, but as I learned to cook I know how good things can be when they're made with healthy, organic products. And if you know how to shop you can do the organic thing for not much more than standard foods.

You may also find out your kid is a paintball champion, a rock climbing ninja warrior, racquet ball master, or some other thing that will gradually bring them back to a healthy body and mind.

It will take a lot of time and patience though. No habit just shifts over night, and it probably won't work if you aggressively impose it. Gradual, and thoughtfully is the way I would go.

  • I don't get the impression that the mother wants to put her child on a diet but rather the other way around. Until we have that clarification, the scare tactics stay out. May 12, 2015 at 10:43
  • @anongoodnurse - the child wants to put the mother on a diet? I'm not sure what exactly the other way around could be.
    – Kai Qing
    May 12, 2015 at 22:35
  • The child wants to go on a diet, but the mother is concerned. May 12, 2015 at 22:47

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