There you are. You and your child. Sitting in the waiting room, check-out line, or living room. Most likely within easy reach of a magazine. And there on the front cover you spot it. LOSE TEN POUNDS BY MEMORIAL DAY. Or maybe it’s the Fourth of July, or Halloween. Now I can sit here and tell you that I find this regular onslaught of dieting tips annoying but certainly they draw my attention. And occasionally pull me in – half hoping for that miracle fix – half scoffing at the so-called fix. So imagine your pre-teen or teenaged daughter reading these supposedly helpful rags. Makes for a bit of anxiety with all the latest eating disorder stats. But maybe I’m overestimating the importance of these magazines. Let’s look at the latest research you might have read about on the internet.
Patricia van den Berg and her colleagues decided to see if reading dieting articles influenced teen’s later dieting behavior. In 1999 they asked 2,516 teens “how often do you read magazine articles in which dieting or weight loss is discussed?” Then they also answered questions about their weight and body image, dieting behavior, self-esteem, and symptoms of depression. The researchers also measured their height and weight. Five years later (2004) the researchers mailed out similar questionnaires to the same teens.
Now for the results. At the start of the study girls were more likely to be frequent readers (44%) of the dieting articles than boys (14%). Not surprising. Somewhat surprising – a girl’s weight did not predict how frequently she read diet articles. Not so for boys. The heavier the boy, the more frequently he read them. So it sounds like girls read quite a few articles, regardless of their weight whereas only the heavier boys did. It’s possible the boys were reading a different kind of article – Gain 10 Pounds of Muscle by Next Month? The researchers didn’t ask the kids what they were reading so we don’t really know. But it is odd, right? Another limitation, these kids might have also been hedging the truth a bit. You know, to make themselves look good. Or to tell the researchers what they wanted to hear.
But now for the main results. Did reading influence behavior? For the girls, yes. The more diet articles a girl read in 1999, the more dieting she did in 2004. This was true for what we would consider more healthy dieting (e.g., eating more fruits and vegetables) to the outright dangerous dieting (vomiting, using laxatives). But let’s look at the particular dieting behaviors. First, the extreme dieting behavior (laxatives, etc). The more diet mags, the more the dieting. This also held for the less unhealthy dieting (fasting, skipping meals). More mags, more dieting. Not quite true for the “healthy” dieting behaviors (fruits, veggies, exercising, no sugar). Girls who “hardly ever” or “sometimes” read articles were significantly more likely to diet than those who never did – and this is strange – those who “often” did. Those who read the most about dieting actuall dieting as most as those who read none. And girls who read a bit to some dieted the most. I’ve no explanation. Maybe you do? Sometimes these little blips occur in research. Sometimes they’re replicated, that is, found again, in other studies. And sometimes not. I’m not sure what this one will be…
And for the boys? There was no significant link between reading and dieting. Go figure. Boys do not appear to be influenced by reading about dieting and weight loss. The results might have been different had the researchers asked about articles on building muscle. Obviously this study didn’t address that issue.
Yet there’s one more somewhat surprising result – reading did not affect any of the psychological outcomes (self-esteem, body image, depression) for either the girls or the boys. I would have expected at least, one, maybe body image, to be effected by diet articles. I know I find myself temporarily at odds with various body parts after reading a paragraph or two.
Before reading this I would have expected that reading would have negatively impacted body image, leading to dieting. No? I find the lack of relationship between the psychological variables and dieting disturbing. The researchers controlled for these variable when they looked at dieting. That means body image and the like didn’t have any effect on dieting. I can’t quite make peace with it. Being a psychologist, I have a hard time believing the factors we typically link to eating disorders don’t correlate with dieting behavior, even extreme dieting. It’s as if we read the articles and pursue the behavior without consciously processing it.
Brings me to another limitation. The researchers couldn’t be sure if it was the text, the article itself, or the accompanying photos of no doubt thin models that produced the effects.
Not to dismiss the main finding – reading diet articles (or seeing the thin model) predicts teen dieting behavior five years in the future. That’s pretty persuasive. Found on three different degrees of dieting. The cultural and health implications. No wonder the study landed in Pediatrics, a highly respected journal perused by many a pediatrician and unfortunately not enough parents. Hopefully some doctors will ban some of those magazines, you know the ones, from their waiting areas. But what about all those other sources of unhealthy cultural messages…like the pro-anorexia web sites kids seem to know.
Read the article. Is Dieting Advice From Magazines Helpful or Harmful? Five-Year Associations with Weight-Control Behaviors and Psychological Outcomes in Adolescents. Pediatrics, Jan 2007; 119: pages 30 - 37.