Calorie counting and diet plans are nothing new—and neither are the controversies around them. But a new controversy has broken out on the subject: What happens when we put diet apps on the smartphone of a child or teen?
Dieting is—unfortunately—not foreign to kids and teens. Over half of teenage girls, and about a quarter of teenage boys, report actively dieting, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). To make it worse, new dieting apps designed specifically for youth might normalize and validate dieting behaviors. The apps tend to use colorful and cartoon-like infographics to teach habits that promote weight loss, and they include games that test health knowledge, but this doesn’t make them “kid friendly.”
"It is dangerous to promote dieting to kids and teens because we can’t know ahead of time which kids and teens are genetically vulnerable to an eating disorder,” says Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, psychologist and eating disorder specialist at Eating Disorder Therapy LA. “Over time, some switch gets tripped, and with very little warning, the kid develops anorexia nervosa, a mental illness with a high mortality rate from which full recovery can require nine to 22 years.”
Since diet apps for kids are new, experts don’t yet know how the youth who use them will be affected. However, the evidence of how they affect young adults isn’t reassuring: A 2017 study found that the app MyFitnessPal, which helps track calories and physical activity, contributed to eating disorder symptoms in undergraduate students.
Plus, there’s plenty of evidence that diets in general promote eating disorders among youth. According to the NEDA, teenagers are more likely than adults to use unhealthy weight-control behaviors, such as skipping meals, smoking, and vomiting. A 2016 study surveyed 14- and 15-year-old students and found that moderate dieters were five times more likely to develop an eating disorder, and extreme dieters were 18 times more likely, according to the NEDA.
“Eating according to external rules cuts people off from their own regulatory systems and encourages the development of increasingly disordered eating," says Dr. Muhlheim. That's often because when people are asked to track and monitor their own intake (whether they're an adult or a child), they are more likely to feel shame around their food choices, ultimately resulting in an unhealthy relationship with food.
Of course, you can't put all the blame on the child: Parents sometimes encourage their child to diet or count calories, believing it will help their child be healthier and avoid bullying at school. Some also monitor and comment on all of their child's food choices. While the parents may have good intentions, this effort may do more harm than good.
Dr. Muhlheim points out that many of the kids and teens who go on to develop anorexia nervosa—a type of eating disorder characterized by extreme calorie restriction—are in larger bodies. These kids may experience weight stigma at school and home, making them vulnerable to low self-esteem, a risk factor for eating disorders. They may internalize the food monitoring from their parents and become self-conscious about eating and their bodies.
Promoting Health Among Youth
It’s important to teach healthy eating habits to kids—but there’s a difference between healthy eating and dieting. Habits like calorie counting and weight tracking may not be the way to go.
“It’s far better to teach that bodies come in all shapes and sizes,” says Dr. Muhlheim, “and model body acceptance.” For example, avoid letting your child hear you critiquing your own reflection in the mirror, or making comments about other people’s bodies. (Breaking these bad habits may also be good for your own mental health, too.)
“Parents can also model acceptance of all foods as part of a healthy diet. Not all food needs to be for health—there is room for ‘fun’ food, too, just as there is time for leisure as well as work,” says Dr. Muhlheim. “Parents can model food as a source of pleasure and connection as well as nourishment.”
When it comes to exercise, let your child see you move for fun, not for punishment to “burn off calories.” Encourage your child to play games and find active hobbies they enjoy—and let them see you doing the same thing.
“Parents should also be aware that it is perfectly normal for children to gain a lot of weight before or as they go through puberty,” says Dr. Muhlheim. “Some kids grow out before they grow up—that is generally normal and nothing that needs to be addressed through dieting.”