What are common causes of unhealthy eating in teenagers?

Unhealthy eating habits develop over time. Generally, if a child does not have a healthy example to model themselves after, poor habits develop.

There are many causes of unhealthy eating.  Some examples of circumstances that may lead to unhealthy habits include:

  • Dysfunctional family situation, such as divorce, single parent, or foster care.
  • Family not eating meals together
  • Poor eating habits modeled by parents/caretakers
  • Lack of knowledge about what is healthy to eat
  • Busy schedule
  • Extreme amounts of traveling
  • Lack of desire to eat healthy
  • Poverty
  • Depression and other emotional extremes


What are good questions to ask a client to uncover the causes of unhealthy eating?

Dietitian Barb Pearl asks her clients the following questions to help her determine whether her clients have unhealthy eating habits and the reasons for such habits:


Questions about eating patterns

Reason for asking the question

Do you eat when you are hungry or eat all the time?  


Ask about a person’s level of hunger to determine if the client listens to body signals with regard to hunger.  Do they eat to nourish themselves or eat because of emotional or environmental stimuli?

Are you over-eating?



It is important to ask about over-eating and under-eating to see if the client is aware of his/her eating habits.  Often, people are unaware of how much they actually eat and before someone can change their eating habits, they must first be aware of what those habits are. 

For example, if your client typically watches TV while eating, they may not be aware of what or how much they consume.  It’s very important that someone with an eating problem is aware of how much and what they consume.  A good recommendation for someone with under-eating or over-eating habits is to only eat when they can sit down and eat without distractions.  They should also record what they eat and how much, as a tool to help them build an awareness of their eating habits. 

What are you doing when you eat? (Watching TV, talking on the phone; eating on the run; driving a car; getting dressed; etc.)


Many people who are over or underweight eat when they are easily distracted by other activities. It is especially important for these people to focus on their meals/snacks and have few or no distractions.

People who eat on the go may consume a lot of “empty calories” because they hardly notice that they are eating as they drive to work or talk on the phone.  They are also at risk of over eating because when people don’t pay attention to the eating process, they are less likely to feel satiated, causing them to snack frequently

What motivates you to eat or not eat? (hunger, emotions, etc.)


A healthy eater needs to eat to nourish their body.  It is healthy to eat when hungry instead of reacting to emotions.

How quickly or slowly do you eat? How does this affect the kinds of foods you eat and the quantity of foods you eat?


It takes 15-20 minutes for our food to digest and for our brain signal that we are full. Quick eaters tend to be overweight and try to “clean their plate” more often than others. Quick eaters tend to lose the connection with fullness and generally eat more than they need.

What if the client doesn’t answer questions truthfully?





Getting a “straight answer” from clients can be tricky sometimes.  This is particularly true when asking sensitive questions that may indicate a client has unhealthy eating habits.  They may not feel comfortable telling the truth. They may be embarrassed. In these cases, the dietitian has to work to develop trust over time.  It is appropriate to repeat these questions (e.g., on follow-up visits) over time after developing a close rapport with the client.

If a client demonstrates unhealthy eating behaviors, how do you assess his/her readiness for treatment?

Sometimes you may meet with a client who is not yet ready to begin a healthy nutritional program.  Assessing a client’s readiness is an important part of your initial meeting(s) with a new client.  If the client’s goals are unrealistic for his/her situation, you can discuss their goals with them and do what you can to help them adjust their expectations to be safer and healthier. 

Sometimes clients are not willing to adjust their expectations.  In these cases, it is perfectly acceptable to “agree to disagree”.  You may even suggest that the client take some time to consider the options you presented and contact you when they are more ready to proceed.

In addition, sometimes you can provide clients with tools to conduct self assessments that can help them determine how ready they are to make the kinds of changes they need to make.  One example is a tool to help clients assess their “weight loss readiness”.  You may refer to this quiz for helpful examples of the kinds of questions to ask when trying to assess a client’s motivation, expectations, and eating behaviors.  You can also use the feedback provided in the quiz to get a sense for how to talk to your clients about their readiness to change. There may be times when you and your client come to the conclusion that they are not ready to lose weight and they need to work on other life issues first.