Dieting in adolescent girls is ubiquitous but its health significance is uncertain. On the one hand it might be seen as promoting healthy weight control and on the other it might be considered as a risk factor for eating disorders. Dieting levels were systematically assessed in a representative group of 2525 Australian teenagers and classified using item response theory. In this group, 38% of girls and 12% of boys were categorised as intermediate dieters; 7% of girls and 1% of boys fell into a group of extreme dieters. Body mass carried a strong positive association with intermediate dieting. Most female dieters, nevertheless, fell within a normal weight range. Psychiatric morbidity was the clearest factor associated with extreme dieting and 62% of extreme dieters reported high levels of depression and anxiety. Extreme dieting might reasonably be viewed as lying on a spectrum with clinical eating disorders. Most dieting is unjustified on the grounds of appropriate weight control and appears to reflect a widespread striving of teenage girls towards body shapes at the lower end of age-adjusted norms.