Girls and Weight Control: Let Them Eat Cake?

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Eric Stice, Rebecca Cameron, Chris Hayward, C. Barr Taylor, Joel Killen

Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, December 1999, Vol. 67, pgs 967-974.

Free copy from or write to Eric Stice at Dept. of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, 330 Mezes Hall, Austin, TX 78712

Do girls who try to lose weight tend to gain weight instead? A new study suggests that adolescent girls who try to lose weight are more likely to gain weight and to become obese, compared to girls who do not try to lose weight. This study has important implications for adolescent girls, and adults who work with them, since one of every four adolescent girls is obese and so many girls are obsessed with issues of appearance and weight.

The researchers studied 692 ninth-grade girls from different ethnic groups in northern California for four years. The average girl was almost 15 years old when the study began. Once a year, they were evaluated by measuring height and weight, filling out a questionnaire, and participating in a structured clinical interview. Questions included self-described dieting and dietary restraint, exercise, fasting, and other weight control efforts.

The girls gained an average of three pounds each year, regardless of whether they were overweight, underweight, or of normal weight when the study began.

The surprise was that efforts to control weight seemed to backfire, and the researchers believe this may be because the efforts were so often misguided. Strategies that were especially likely to result in weight gain included using appetite suppressants or laxatives, self-induced vomiting to control weight, and binge-eating. Girls who said they were "dieting" were slightly more likely to gain weight.

Of the 589 girls who were not obese in ninth grade, 63 (10.7 percent) had become obese by the study's end. Like weight gain, obesity was more likely among girls who had tried to control their weight. Girls who dieted were more than three times more likely to become obese than girls who did not diet. Girls who reported exercising to control weight were also more likely to become obese. Girls who used more appetite suppressants and laxatives were even more likely to become obese.

Stice told Youth Today that young women who strive to lose weight are more likely to "progress to" binge eating and subsequent weight gain. Adolescents with a family history of obesity may start weight-control efforts early as they try to avoid becoming overweight. He believes that the weight control efforts of adolescents do not necessarily involve decreasing fat intake or calories or increasing exercise, and kids' reports of food consumption and exercise levels are notoriously inaccurate.

Stice said he is still trying to make sense of the study findings. There are two possible interpretations. The "old interpretation" is that when you diet, you no longer pay attention to when your body tells you to eat. Then, when you get really hungry from lack of food, there is a tendency to overeat. Stice isn't convinced that is what is going on here, especially because exercise was not beneficial, as expected. He suspects that dieting itself isn't the reason the girls are overweight; instead, perhaps some people have a chronic tendency to overeat more calories than they need, and although they say they are dieting or exercising, they aren't doing enough to make up for their overeating.

Stice advises youth workers to "engage kids in a weight control lifestyle" whenever possible. "Most weight control efforts aren't healthy, but if kids make healthier choices about their eating and exercise, that would be a wonderful thing. Remind kids that it's much easier to prevent weight gain than to lose weight."