Kids risking growth, health with diets

May 28, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Worried about her weight, Sarah swore off dessert and cut back on meal portions. Eventually, she began skipping breakfast and was just nibbling at lunch and dinner. Within six months, she dropped 13 pounds.

A weight-loss success story? No.

Sarah is only 10 years old. Her diet cost her 20 percent of her weight.

Children like Sarah, a Philadelphia fourth-grader who's too embarrassed to let her real name be used, are at the forefront of a disturbing new trend affecting the health of American children: dieting by kids.

Around the country, children as young as 6 are shedding pounds, afraid of being fat and increasingly being treated for eating disorders that threaten their health and growth, say health researchers and specialists.

In trying to correct one problem -- one in five children is now overweight, according to federal estimates -- doctors, parents, schools and news media have unwittingly caused another.

No one denies that many American children, like adults, have a problem with weight. American children are fatter than ever before, experts agree. Among kids 6 to 11, obesity increased 54 percent in the past two decades, according to a 1987 review of four national nutrition and health surveys. The number of obese youths rose 39 percent among 12- to 17-year-olds.

Obesity poses serious health risks for children. The condition is linked with high blood pressure and future problems with diabetes, heart disease and colon and breast cancer, says Dr. Gilman Grave of the National Institute of Child Health and Development.

In recent years, public health officials, doctors and the nation's schools have preached the importance of reduced fat and cholesterol and more exercise for children as well as adults.

But now many health professionals are sounding a new warning: Children should never diet. Dieting can lead to anorexia nervosa, bulimia and other eating disorders that cause death, serious TTC illness, stunted growth and other health problems at a vulnerable stage when extra protein is needed for a child's healthy development. It can also affect a child's learning, ability to concentrate and performance in school.

Kids, whatever their size, need a healthy diet low in fats and sugars and high in fiber, and need an active life, health professionals say. Exercise is the key to preventing and controlling obesity, experts agree.

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