For teen girls, risky dieting tied to family conflict, depression

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Young teen girls are more likely to count calories, skip meals and engage in other risky dieting behaviors if they're experiencing family conflict or have symptoms of depressed mood, according to a new study from Australia.

"There are many factors associated with the development of risky dieting, including socialization by peers, media, and parents/family," said coauthor Adrian B. Kelly of The University of Queensland in an email. "This study takes a look at the emotional climate of families as an underlying vulnerability of girls to risky dieting."

In Australia, around 39 percent of teen girls and 13 percent of teen boys engage in intermediate or extreme dieting, Kelly said.

The researchers surveyed more than 4,000 girls aged 11 to 14 in 231 schools in three Australian states. Girls answered a questionnaire about specific behaviors including calorie counting, reducing food quantities at meals or skipping meals as a means of controlling weight, rating how often they engaged in each behavior, from "seldom/never" to "almost always."

They also completed a mood and feelings questionnaire, described how close they were to their fathers and mothers, and rated three items about conflict at home, such as, "people in my family often insult and yell at each other."

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Those with higher levels of family conflict were also more likely to engage in dieting behavior, and feeling depressed seemed to explain at least part of that connection, according to the results in the journal Eating Behaviors.

The researchers accounted for the start of puberty and factored in socioeconomic status based on parents' occupations. Girls with lower socioeconomic status and those who started puberty early, having their first period at age 11 or younger, were more likely than others to diet.

"There are many things that can be done - this study points to the potential value of addressing stressful family events like conflict and working on ways to reduce the negative impact on childrens' emotional wellbeing," Kelly told Reuters Health by email. "We see this area to be something that might supplement other strategies, rather than replace other evidence-based approaches."

But this study only considered one point in time. It cannot address whether conflict or depression cause risky eating behavior; it only indicates they are somehow connected, the authors write.

"This is one of few studies of a large community sample of girls during their transition to puberty," said professor John Toumbourou, chair in health psychology at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia, who was not involved in the research.

"The finding that the effect of family conflict on adolescent dieting may be mediated by depressive symptoms adds weight to the argument that tackling early depressive symptoms may be critical in efforts to prevent unhealthy dieting in adolescent girls," Toumbourou told Reuters Health by email.

But the findings should be treated cautiously until they are confirmed in long-term studies and researchers test interventions to reduce depression, he said.