HED: Too Young to Diet?


Sarah (pseudonym - meaning, not her real name because she’s too embarrassed for it to be printed). 10 years old. Doesn’t eat dessert. Cut back on meal portions. Skips breakfast, eats a light lunch, dinner. Worried about her weight, Sarah swore off dessert and cut back on meal portions. She started dieting at 66 pounds and lost 13 pounds in six months. Lives in Philadelphia, attends the 4th grade.

Sarah’s mother:  “She started to read labels, counting the calories, reading about the fat content. I thought it was a stage." "She was beginning to look like a concentration camp victim. You could see her ribs. She had lost so much on her thighs there was a big gap between her legs. It was heartbreaking.”

Katie, age 13, lives in a Chicago suburb. "If you want to look pretty, if you want to be popular, if you want to stand out, you have to be thin.” Began becoming weight-conscious 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 said she was "afraid I was going to be like my mom." As a 75-pound third-grader, Katie 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. At age 11, when she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for treatment of anorexia nervosa, she weighed 42 pounds.

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

Frances Berg, editor of Obesity and Health, a North Dakota journal that reports the latest scientific research on obesity. "It's a national crisis.” Attitudes that parents hold about obesity must change, Berg said. "They're conveying the message: There's something wrong with your body, and we've got to fix it. They need to give the message that you're great the way you are, and we love you."

Elizabeth Hodges, who treats children with eating disorders and is one of the authors of the study published last summer. "The heavier the kids were, the more anxiety they expressed about their weight. But even normal weight kids were dieting." "These children have always been exposed to the diet culture.” "It's a fact of life. Everyone's running and exercising and doing Nordic Track and step machines and watching their weight and what they eat. Kids get the message that to be thin is what's most important." The emphasis on being thin "sets up a dilemma for kids who are normally heavier to try to diet themselves down to a biologically impossible state.”


Summary of findings

Obesity poses serious health risks for children. The condition is linked with high blood pressure

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. Children go through stages when they are heavier, especially during puberty, and often grow into their weight, dietitians say. Children, whatever their size, need a healthy diet low in fats and sugars and high in fiber and 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, recent surveys show. In addition, children are influenced by images they see in the media and habits that they observe in their parents who are concerned with not gaining weight.