Afraid of fat, obsessed with thinness, children try dangerous dieting

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? Not at all.

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.

"This whole pressure to be thin has backfired on children," says Joanne Ikeda, a dietitian at the University of California at Berkeley who counsels parents and health professionals about children and weight issues.

"It's a national crisis," says Frances M. Berg, editor of Obesity and Health, a North Dakota journal that reports the latest scientific research on obesity.

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 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.

"Even with fat children you can stunt their growth so that instead of ending up with a slender child you end up with a short fat child," says dietitian Ikeda. Children go through stages when they are heavier, especially during puberty, and often grow into their weight, dietitians say.

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.

But that message apparently has not reached many children, several recent surveys show.

In a study published last summer, researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina reported dramatic evidence about the problem of preteen dieting. In the largest study of middle school children to date, they surveyed 3,175 boys and girls between 10 and 13 years old. More than half the girls in grades five through eight who were surveyed felt they looked fat and wanted to lose weight. One-fourth of the boys had similar attitudes. Among all the students, one out of three had dieted and almost 5 percent said they had vomited to lose weight.

"The heavier the kids were, the more anxiety they expressed about their weight," says Elizabeth Hodges, who treats children with eating disorders and is one of the study's authors. "But even normal-weight kids were dieting."

Unhealthy dieting is even more widespread among teen-agers. More than two-thirds of high school girls are dieting, one in five has taken diet pills and many girls as well as boys are using laxatives, diuretics, fasting and vomiting in a desperate effort to become slim, according to a 1992 study of students in 10 Cleveland high schools.

"If you want to look pretty, if you want to be popular, if you want to stand out, you have to be thin," says Katie, 13, who lives in a Chicago suburb and asks that her last name not be used.

Katie's ordeal began at age 7 when she looked at the girl sitting

next to her on the school bus. "I just thought my thighs were a lot bigger than hers. I was shocked because I thought I was fat." Her parents were dieting and Katie says she was "afraid I was going to be like my mom."

What followed was a typical pattern, experts say. The 75-pound third-grader cut out fat from her diet and began refusing food. She began spending hours exercising to lose weight, often waking at 4:30 a.m. to jog in place in her bedroom.

By age 11, when she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for treatment of anorexia nervosa, she weighed 42 pounds.

Today's children face a cruel dilemma. They are growing up in a society that condones eating too much of the wrong foods and exercising too little, while at the same time clinging to unreasonable ideals of thinness and beauty.

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