Preteen Dieting Can Signal Trouble Ahead

Early signs of eating disorders emerging in younger girls, experts say

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HealthDay Reporter

SUNDAY, June 26, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Three girls are picking through their lunches at school, commenting on which foods will make them fat or not. One says she has started dieting, and her friends agree that they might start cutting back on calories, too.

Typical high school cafeteria chatter? Guess again. Experts say this type of conversation is becoming increasingly common in the nation's elementary schools, as well.

"It's an unfortunate trend, but we're finding that girls are becoming concerned about body image and dieting at ages as young as 7 or 8," said Dr. Terry Bravender, assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., and medical director of Duke Eating Disorders Program.

According to Bravender, one recent survey found a full 40 percent of 9- and 10-year-olds claiming they were on some kind of weight-loss diet.

The Duke expert stressed that dieting and other body-conscious behaviors don't necessarily mean young girls are headed to full-fledged anorexia or bulimia. But he does view these behaviors as unhealthy and worrisome, and worthy of parental notice.

"Like adults, kids have food fads that come in and out, and sometimes they may be 'on a diet' simply to imitate something they see on TV or in the home," he said. "It can be transient."

But, he added, repeat dieting, frequent talk about "fattening" foods and spending large amounts of time in front of the mirror should set off parental alarm bells, especially when it occurs in preteens.

Unfortunately, parents are often a prime source of these behaviors, said Phoenix psychologist Lorna Gale Cheifetz, who specializes in eating disorders.

"I believe the weight obsession begins at home," she said. "Parents are sitting watching TV and saying things like 'Look at so-and-so, she's gained weight, look at her butt.' Kids hear that."

"As we all know, kids are also great imitators," Bravender added. "So if Mom is constantly dieting, chances are her daughter will pick up on that."

It also doesn't help that the whole of the culture is pushing young girls and women toward body obsession.

"You have Britney Spears and other teenyboppers dressing in a certain way, and girls want to look like their idols," Cheifetz said. "Our fashion designers are in on this, too -- if you look at the clothes they are trying to sell to 7-to-14-year-olds, all of it is erotic, there's just no other word for it."

Bravender agreed. "We need to give kids time to just be kids, not to push all these unrealistic expectations on them," he said.

True eating disorders usually emerge at two distinct points, both of them times of great stress for girls seeking a sense of identity.

"The first [phase] is near the end of puberty, at about 14 or so," Bravender said. "And second, typically, is when girls leave high school and enter college."

Teaching young girls a healthy respect for food -- eating in moderation and without obsessing about calories -- is one step parents can take to reduce their child's risk for problem behaviors, the experts said. Parents should also model behaviors that let kids know that it's OK -- maybe even great -- to be exactly the person they are.

The vast majority of young girls will escape serious eating disorders, according to the experts. But that doesn't mean they won't be left with insecurities that can negatively affect their lives for decades to come.

"These are patterns that can stick with us for life, and our children absolutely do pick up their values from us," Cheifetz said. "So, if you have a kid that's already obsessed with body image you need to think really carefully about what you are saying and doing in the home. If you walk around obsessing about what other people think of you, picking apart every detail of your appearance, chances are your child is going to be that way, too."

More information

To learn more about eating disorders, visit the American Psychological Association

SOURCES: Terry Bravender, M.D., assistant professor, pediatrics, and medical director, Duke Eating Disorders Program, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C.; Lorna Gale Cheifetz, Psy.D., private practice, Phoenix

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