Thanks to this cultural myth, an alarming number of teenage girls are unhappy with their bodies. About 27 per cent of teenage girls are on a diet at any one time. Some girls take dieting to the extreme. Dieting taken too far can surface as anorexia nervosa (starving yourself to reach a dangerously low body weight) and bulimia nervosa (the 'binge and purge' diet). These eating disorders are so serious that many girls with these problems have to be treated in hospital.
Dieting is hard on your body. It can cause problems like hair loss, tooth decay, muscle wasting and problems with heart function. Depriving your brain and body of adequate nutrition also destroys your ability to concentrate or study.
Unfortunately, diets rarely keep the pounds off permanently. Why? Well, dieting teaches your body to get by with fewer nutrients. Once you go off the diet, your body suddenly has more nutrients than it has learned to use. Your body fat and weight increase. You are left disappointed, perhaps with feelings of failure and lowered self-esteem.
Also, fad diets teach you to deprive your body of vital nutrients. For instance, 'carb counting' (eating very few carbohydrates) is very popular right now. However, your body - especially your brain - needs carbohydrates to function. Plus, carb counting diets encourage replacing carbs with proteins, especially meat. While meat is a good source of protein, it can also pack a lot of fat.
It's also dangerous to diet using one of the many 'weight loss' pills on the market. Be careful! Many of these products are not government approved, so you do not really know what you are getting or what the products will do to you. Have you heard of ephedra? Until recently, it was the most popular ingredient in weight loss supplements. It has now been banned because it was found to increase the risk of heart problems and strokes.
Read the fine print in advertisements for weight loss supplements. The only way to get the results they advertise (which, by the way, are not typical results) is to also exercise and eat a healthy diet. Why spend extra money on an 'incredible weight loss drug' if you can get the same results by eating and exercising properly?
The smartest way to have a healthy body is to live and eat healthily. Though it seems fairly obvious, healthy eating and regular physical activity have been proven many times over to be the best way to maintain healthy body weight in the long term.
Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating (www.hc-sc.gc.ca) can teach you what kind of food to eat and in what amount. Instead of restricting the foods you can eat, as diets do, the food guide encourages eating a wide variety of foods from all four food groups: grains, vegetables and fruit, milk and milk products, and meat and meat alternatives. A wide selection of foods helps make eating more fun. The food guide is also easier to follow than diets.
Grain products - 5 to 12
The Guide recommends eating five to 12 servings of grain products per day. Grains pack lots of energy to give you the fuel you need to make it through the day. One simple way to add more grain to your diet is to use whole grain instead of white bread.
Vegetables and fruits - 5 to 10
Five to 10 servings per day should be chosen from this food group. Fruits and vegetables contain vital nutrients and may help prevent cancer and heart disease. Choose dark green and orange vegetables and orange fruit more often since they have more nutrients and fibre. Take a few pieces of fruit to school for snacks or add berries to your breakfast cereal.
Milk products - 3 to 4
Each day, have three to four servings of milk products. They supply a great source of calcium to form strong bones and a beautiful smile! Girls in particular need to get enough calcium since they are more likely than guys to have thin bones. Choose lower fat milk products, such as skim milk and yogurt, instead of ice cream.
Meat and alternatives - 2 to 3
Two to three servings per day from this food group are recommended. These foods contain a good source of protein (to help build muscle), iron (to prevent fatigue) and other nutrients. Choose leaner meats cooked in healthy ways. For instance, order a grilled chicken burger instead of a fried hamburger at a fast food restaurant. Add variety to meals and decrease fat intake by substituting beans, lentils, or tofu for meats. For example, have a tofu dog instead of a hot dog, or chili instead of meat stew.
Other foods - now and then
This category includes foods that do not fit into any food group, such as potato chips, candy and soft drinks. These foods should not be eaten on a regular basis because they contain few nutrients and excess sugar and fat. However, it's okay to eat them once in a while.
Being physically active has many benefits apart from achieving a healthy body weight. For instance, you can meet new friends by joining group sports or taking fitness classes at the community centre. It is also a great way to gain new skills and experiences. Physical activity is an excellent way to relax, fight stress, improve sleep and improve self-esteem. You strengthen your heart, maintain flexibility and improve your posture. Your body will look more toned as well.
Start by gradually increasing your level of physical activity until you are doing at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day. Moderate exercise includes brisk walking, rollerblading and bike riding. It may seem like there is not enough time in the day to exercise, since your day is already filled with school, homework and extracurricular activities. You can still achieve this goal! Try reducing the amount of time you spend doing things that are not physically active, such as watching television or surfing the Internet, by five minutes each day. Increase your physical activity by the same amount of time, until you are exercising half an hour every day. If becoming physically active seems challenging, start small. Walk to school or the mall instead of having your parents drive you, or take the stairs instead of the elevator.
The reality is that fads and trends do not help teens maintain a healthy lifestyle. Simple, small changes can mean major benefits to your health. Eating well and exercising regularly are the two most important things you can do to improve your health and outlook. You can take charge of your health. Remember, feeling good makes you look good just as much as looking good makes you feel good.