Food for Thought: Is the Growing Body of Diet Literature Good for Teens?

Article excerpt

The ubiquity of bottled water and nutritional labeling appeared among the entries on the recently released 10th annual Beloit (Wis.) College Mindset list--a zeitgeist inventory that prompts us to remember how the innovations of our lifetimes form the norms of a younger generation's experiences.

Information about diet, nutrition, and exercise is available in plenty to young people. Among the sources telling teens and tweens how to eat, to manage their weight, and to maximize their workouts are the popular magazines that play an increasing role in our young adult collections.

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Yet diet and exercise articles in titles like Cosmo Girl and Teen don't always play a positive role in teens' health choices, according to recent research. "Some of the activities people think are helpful aren't," Dianne Neumark-Sztainer says.

Professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota, Neumark-Sztainer coauthored a study of middle- and high-school students that's been making headlines because of its findings about teens and dieting. The January 2007 Pediatrics article "Is Dieting Advice from Magazines Helpful or Harmful?" connected young women's reading of magazine articles about dieting with unhealthy weight-loss behaviors years later, including eating disorders and poor mental health.

Gender gap weighs in

An interesting difference that emerged in these findings, in conjunction with those of a January 2003 Journal of Adolescent Health study ("Reading Magazine Articles about Dieting and Associated Weight Control Behaviors among Adolescents"), is that while young men's response to diet advice relates to their weight, female responses don't correlate to their physical size. In other words, boys whose body mass index suggests they are overweight are more likely than their peers to read diet and exercise articles, while girls read them regardless of their physical condition.

"Kids nowadays are exposed to so much media and so many messages about how their bodies should look," Neumark-Sztainer observed, acknowledging that these messages extend beyond magazines. …