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Psychological factors that cause adolescents to start dieting as tool of controlling body weight.

Eighty percent (80%) of 10-year-old American girls say that they have been on a diet according to research conducted by the National Eating Disorder Association. Researchers at National Eating Disorder also mentioned that between 40 and 60 percent of children ages 6 to 12 are concerned about their weight or becoming too fat, and 70 percent would prefer to be thinner. Dissatisfaction with body weight is a common western thought that is trending among adolescents. This is one of the main motivational factor behind dieting which adheres to consequences such as unhealthy weight reduction practices for example such as laxative-use, fasting, fat shaming and stress. A lot of studies have been executed to investigate what psychological factors result in excessive dieting particularly in teenagers. Although the sources of information available on the relationship between psychological factors and excessive dieting are not supported by scientific evidence and are often generalization, there are logical explanations. This essay aims discuss psychological factors such as low self-esteem, lack of identity and stress cause health-compromising weight loss strategies mainly dieting.

Dieting is a manifestation of self-consciousness and insecurities with body image that adheres to unrealistic expectations regarding physical appearance. Studies reported by Fairbum provide an explanation as to how low self-esteem causes dieting. Studies explain that adolescents are in the stage of life where they are undergoing a lot of bodily changes as well as hormonal changes, which causes them to become more self-conscious of their body image. Self-consciousness leads to increased self-criticism, which further causes adolescents to become extremely vulnerable and insecure about how they are presenting themselves. As a result, adolescents are propelled into taking harsh measures such as dieting as an attempt to improve their physical appearance and achieve a desired body image. Increase in the intensity of insecurity can lead to extremely disordered eating. A recent study, which was carried out by the school of Physical Education at Purdue University investigated psychosocial factors associated with dieting behaviors among female adolescents. Sample size of 2536 dieters and non-dieters participated in the National Longitudinal Adolescent Health Survey, which examines psychosocial factors such as depression, self-esteem, school connectedness, family connectedness, sense of community and autonomy. The results revealed that Self-esteem was the strongest contributing factor differentiating dieters and nondieters. Statistics generated by this study suggests that 33% of dieters suffered from low self-esteem as their parents constantly criticized them about their weight. Although the sample size is not large enough to prove that dieting is derived by low self-esteem, the fact that 33% of the 2536 dieters is a significant amount of adolescents who deal with low self-esteem. As depicted by this study, low self-esteem is one of the psychological, specifically psychosocial causes of dieting.

It is recognized that teenagers who lack identity are more likely to diet in an attempt to fit in a socially accepted exterior. Although lack of identity is closely tied to the idea of low self-esteem (people who lack identity usually have low self-esteem), it actually deals with power struggle at its core. Adolescents who have a sense of lack of identity usually feel powerless. Researchers at Anorexia Nervosa related eating disorder association (ANRED) explains, "Along with being obsessive thinkers, sensitive to punishment and harm, neurotic, impulsive and rigid, people with eating disorders tend to be perfectionists. They have unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. They are strong and usually winning power-struggles". In summary, when perfectionist teenagers feel weak, powerless and defeated; an important element of their identity gets threatened. Thus, they commence dieting. The achievement of loosing weight gives them the satisfaction of being in-control of a situation. It makes them feel dominant again. This is especially noticeable in victims of trauma. As mentioned by the center for Eating Disorders "50% of those with eating disorders may have been struggling with trauma disorder". Traumatic experiences can cause a person to struggle with shame, guilt and feeling lack of control. Thus, controlling weight is a coping-mechanism system. The eating disorder becomes the individual's attempt to regain control and cope at an emotional level. It provides an acute relief from feeling distressed however it does have to negative psychological and physiological implications in the long run. By dieting, adolescents try to define themselves (create a stronger identity) by a socially accepted body type to feel legitimized and seek approval in fear of being criticized.

"Stress-eating", a very common phrase that is casually used in lot of conversations, is another factor that cause people to start dieting. Stress-eating is defined as a form of disordered eating, is defined as "an increase in food intake in response to negative emotions" and can be considered a maladaptive strategy used to cope with difficult feelings" by Oxford dictionary. GM Manzoni, author of Journal of the American Dietetic Association iterate that there is biological explanation as to why stress leads to weight gain. When stress persists, adrenal glands atop kidneys release hormones called cortisol. Cortisol increases appetite. Incase of a situation where a person is perpetually stressed, the cortisol levels do not fall and high cortisol level becomes the default. Increased cortisol levels cause increased appetite and may encourage cravings for sugary or fatty foods. Increase in intake of carbohydrates raises the body's serotonin level. Serotonin is the body's feel-good chemical, which makes people "feel" better when they are stressed. Increased levels of cortisol lead to excessive cravings and binge eating. Emotional eating derails ones diet, which lead to over-weight and obesity. Obese individuals usually become really insecure about their body image and adopt strict diets to achieve a desired body shape. Henceforth, stress is a psychological factor that is conducive to dieting and eating disorders.

Dissatisfaction with body size is very common among women however it is hyped among adolescents. Psychological factors such as low self-esteem lack of identity and stress cause adolescents to start dieting as tool of controlling body weight to cope with "unflattering" body image. Since many lifestyle habits are established during the adolescent years, alterations in the eating habits of adolescents can further have lifelong psychological implications such as depression and anxiety on their health. Thus, in order to curb this, the society needs to make a conscious decision to change the definition of an ideal body type and body size. Along with that, the aim of dieting should be geared towards achieving a healthier lifestyle instead of loosing weight. Nowadays, people conceptualize dieting as a way of loosing weight instead of eating healthy. Hence, psychological, psychosocial and medical problems arise. Said in other words, adolescents disregard their persona, beliefs, morals, values, intellect and focus on physical appearance as an element of identity. They need to understand the notion that beauty is very subjective and describe by a plethora of factors and so, teenagers should come to terms with their body shape and dieting should not be entertained.

Miha Alam
Byrn Mawr College

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