For a teenager, appearance is everything. But while hairstyles, clothing, and accessories are easily changed, bodies are not.
Body image issues, especially concerns about being or getting fat, plague adolescents well into adulthood, and it turns out these fears can actually lead to weight gain.
So says a new study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Scientists at the Institute of Child Health at University College London examined early symptoms of eating disorders in adolescents and found that some symptoms were associated with weight problems during the mid-teens.
Researchers gathered data on eating disorder symptoms among 7,082 male and female adolescents aged 13-years. They investigated the teens’ fears about weight gain and being upset or distressed about weight and shape.
“Those engaged in unhealthy weight control strategies had 40% increased odds of being overweight and 90% higher odds of being obese at age 15.”
They also analyzed behaviors such as avoidance of fattening foods, food restriction, exercising for weight loss, and purging (self-induced vomiting and use of laxatives or other medications for weight loss).
The data showed that 63% of females and 39% of males were afraid of gaining weight or getting fat, and within these groups, 11% of girls expressed extreme levels of fear of weight gain or concerns about body shape or weight.
Girls also tended to avoid fatty foods and engage in food-restriction more frequently, with 2.4% of girls and 1.8% of boys reporting this behavior.
However, while both girls and boys both exercised to lose weight, boys were more likely to do intense exercise for weight loss.
Bingeing was uncommon, with just 1.2% of boys and 0.8% of girls bingeing once a week or more, and purging was even rarer, with fewer than 1% of both genders engaging in this behavior.
Links between these symptoms and the teens’ family, social, academic, and extracurricular lives were observed. For example, overeating and bingeing were associated with negative effects on the teen’s life and family. They were also linked to emotional and behavioral issues for teens of both genders. And food restriction was linked to mental health disturbances in more boys than girls.
After a two-year follow up period, researchers found connections between these behaviors and the teens’ weight. Girls and boys who were worried about their weight and shape and engaged in unhealthy weight control strategies had 40% increased odds of being overweight and 90% higher odds of being obese at age 15.
Girls who engaged in binge eating at 13 tended to have a higher body mass index (BMI) within those two years. Conversely, boys and girls who severely restricted their eating at 13 had lower BMIs by the time they reached 15.
Lead study author Dr. Nadia Micali warned, “Even at this young age, a high percentage of boys and girls have worrying eating disorders symptoms. [Parents should] talk to them to understand if their eating disorder behaviors are a reflection of other, more deep-seated problems [and] try not to be confrontational but supportive and firm.”
“If they are worried, parents should seek help from a health professional,” she added.
The Bottom Line
Although the study was conducted in England, the results mirror what is going on with U.S. adolescents. According to the most recent numbers released by the CDC, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years, with the percentage of obese adolescents (aged 12-19) increasing from 5% to 18%.
We all know that the media pushes women to be thin, with this message being shown at younger and younger ages, but it is a worrisome trend that young girls are more worried about their weight and how they look.
Kids develop their eating habits at a very young age. So, developing healthy attitudes toward eating is crucial during this period of development. This is especially important because changing these behaviors later on can be very challenging.
Whether you’re a parent, grandparent, guardian, or mentor to a tween or teen, a key step is to lead by example. If you have a healthy attitude toward food, it will rub off on your kids. Showing kids at an early age how to prepare healthy, great-tasting meals is a first step, and encouraging an active lifestyle by getting young kids to participate in a variety of activities is also important. Ultimately, a positive body image promotes both a healthy body and mind!
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.