After 15 years, study reveals dieting differences between genders

A University of Minnesota study that began in 1998 found that men used more extreme behaviors to control their weight.

Nikki Pederson

A new study published by the University of Minnesota highlights weight control and unhealthy dieting trends in men and women by using data from a 15-year-long study. 

Published late last month, the study found that on average those who engaged in weight control behaviors as young adults were more likely to continue those behaviors into adulthood, and those who had not engaged in these behaviors in young adulthood were less likely to initiate these behaviors later in life.

The study also found significant gender differences in the results. Between adolescence and adulthood, both men and women increased efforts to diet, yet high-frequency dieting decreased slightly for women. But, between adolescence and adulthood, high‐frequency dieting and unhealthy weight control behaviors increased more among men.

“It’s a really incredible undertaking,” said Annie Haynos, the article’s lead author and an assistant professor at the University’s Minnesota Center for Eating Disorders Research.

The study was categorized into four different “waves,” which looked at the survey results of 858 female and 597 male participants at four different developmental periods in their life. The first phase of the study surveyed middle and high school students in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. Participants who provided enough contact information were then sent follow up surveys at five-year intervals until 2016, according to Haynos.  

The study looked at dieting patterns, asking the participants how often they had dieted in the last year and if they used any unhealthy or extreme weight-loss tactics, such as self-induced vomiting, laxatives, skipping meals and diet pills. Finally, the participants self-reported their height and weight, and demographic information.

An estimated one-third of adolescents and two-thirds of adults partake in dieting every year. Despite a large amount of people regaining their lost weight within a few years, weight control behaviors can have damaging consequences, according to the American Psychological Association.

Dieting and unhealthy weight control is a significant risk factor for developing an eating disorder. While the direct cause of eating disorders is unknown, genetic, biological, behavioral and social factors can raise a person’s risk.

“If you didn’t diet, less people would be getting eating disorders,” said Jillian Lampert, the chief strategy officer at the Emily Program, a St. Paul-based eating disorder treatment program.

Lampert added that restrictive eating disorders often start with a diet change. 

“You start by changing the way you eat, you cut out butter or milk or sugar,” she said. “Before you know it, you’re eating relatively few foods.”

Lampert contributed to the first phase of the study. She is familiar with the topic, having suffered from an eating disorder in the past.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, which can make treatment difficult, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. Boynton Health Services does not offer internal eating disorder treatment, instead referring students to outside centers such as the Emily Program. 

“The [University] is 100 percent not accommodating to eating disorders,” said Lizz Fong, a senior studying gender, women and sexuality studies.

Fong estimates that she’s had an eating disorder since she was nine or 10 years old. Individuals who suffer from disordered eating also tend to have rituals around food, such as needing to eat toast counter-clockwise, she said. Fong started with those rituals and then began to restrict food around seventh grade.

“It just kind of spiraled out of control from there,” she said.

Changing the culture of diets and weight loss is difficult but possible, Lampert said. 

“What if we didn’t talk about diets?” she said. “What if we talked about health … what if we said, ‘I love what my body can do and I’m not going to say bad things about it?’”

Fong said that eating disorders serve a function and involve typical responses to difficult situations.

“And while I think it’s important to, on the micro level, talk about diet culture, we also need to realize that [eating disorders] are a systemic problem.”

For Lampert, the first step to shifting the dialogue away from diet culture is straightforward. 

“Don’t talk about your body negatively in front of kids. If you wouldn’t say it to a 3-year-old, don’t say it to yourself,” she said.