Nearly a third of Ontario girls surveyed are dieting to lose weight
May 10, 2004
HELEN BRANSWELL

TORONTO (CP) - Girls as young as 10 years old are dieting and in danger of developing unhealthy attitudes about weight, body image and food, a group of Toronto researchers reported Tuesday.

Their study of 2,279 girls aged 10 to 14 showed that while the vast majority had healthy weights, nearly a third felt they were overweight and were trying to shed pounds. Even at the tender age of 10, nearly 32 per cent of girls felt "too fat" and 31 per cent said they were trying to diet.

The findings underscore a modern quandary: How does society fight the growing prevalence of childhood obesity without creating a generation of food-obsessed yo-yo dieters?

"As a researcher, this is what I'm struggling with," said lead author Gail McVey, a researcher at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and director of the Ontario community outreach program for eating disorders.

"One of the big issues that we're facing in today's society is the prevalence of childhood obesity. And the methods that we are going about to prevent childhood obesity, I think really need to be examined."

McVey and her colleagues analysed data collected in a number of surveys of southern Ontario schoolgirls between 1993 and 2003, reporting their findings in Tuesday's issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Nearly 80 per cent of the girls had a healthy body weight and only 7.2 per cent were considered overweight using standard weight-to-height ratios. Most researchers suggest the rate of overweight or obese children in this country is several times higher than that figure.

Nearly 30 per cent of the girls reported they were currently trying to lose weight, though few admitted to dangerous behaviour such as self-induced vomiting or binge eating.

Still, a test that measured attitudes towards eating showed 10.5 per cent of survey participants were already at risk of developing an eating disorder.

"We're not talking about kids who've been prescribed a diet because they're above average weight or overweight. We're talking about children who are within a healthy weight range. And they have taken it upon themselves to diet to lose weight," McVey said, acknowledging she found the rates disturbing.

The psychiatric director of the eating disorder program at B.C. Children's Hospital in Vancouver said striking a balance between healthy weights and healthy attitudes towards food and body image is a complex task, with no easy solutions.

Multi-dimensional programs that address issues of self-esteem, bullying in schools, nutrition, activity levels and attitudes within families are needed - and they need to be targeted at children, parents and teachers in elementary schools, Dr. Pierre Leichner said.

"This is the prime age when these disorders actually start taking hold," he said.

Shelly Russell-Mayhew, a Calgary psychologist who designs programs aimed at preventing eating disorders, agreed.

The best way to prevent children from developing eating disorders is to intervene when they are young, she said, adding that by junior high school, programs are generally looking to undo problems that are already entrenched.

Russell-Mayhew doesn't see reducing obesity rates among kids and eliminating unnecessary dieting among children of healthy weights as conflicting goals.

"It's the same coin. It's just two different sides."

She suggested prevention programs should be geared for both groups - the children whose weight is too high and those who fear it is too high. Children in both groups - and their families and teachers - need to hear messages about appropriate levels of physical activity, good nutrition, healthy body image and self-esteem, she said.

"It's not like we try to shield one group of kids from one message. They don't need to be opposing messages. They can be the same message, because really, it is about sense of self, self-esteem," Russell-Mayhew said.

"Because if we have kids who feel good about themselves, then they're not going to need to use food, whether that's over-use it or under-use it . . . to cope with their feelings."