They say they weigh too much, but they don't
Americans often look in the mirror and think, "I'm fat." But a growing number are children, usually pre-adolescent and adolescent girls, who aren't overweight but believe they are.
"I think what goes on at home and what comes out of the media are both involved," says California pediatrician Loraine Stern, M.D. She has seen girls as young as 6 worry about their weight.
Magazines and TV shows that worshiping ultra-thin models and pop stars fuel the trend, she says. They lead kids to think such unrealistic goals are the norm. Parents who obsess over their own eating or exercise habits can make things worse.
"Two messages need to be transmitted," says Dr. Stern, co-author of the American Academy of Pediatrics' "A Guide to Your Child's Nutrition." "One is that people come in all different shapes and sizes. The other is that we need to focus on children's strength and self-esteem and sense of accomplishment, not just on their bodies."
In a recent study of Girl Scouts in fifth and sixth grades, about 30 percent said they were doing something to lose weight. Most took moderate steps: They ate more fruits and vegetables or less high-fat foods. But a few took laxatives or diet pills, say University of Minnesota researchers. At that age (10, on average) any dieting can affect growth and raise risks of fatigue, irritability, low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders. Yet one-third of the dieting girls said they weren't overweight.
Today, of course, more youths are actually overweight than in the past. Those cases need "a multi-pronged approach involving food, exercise, education and a decrease in television," Dr. Stern says. "And the whole family needs to be in on it."
What if your child's fear of being fat seems groundless -- or if you're not sure? You should seek advice from your pediatrician or another health professional who knows children and eating disorders. Some children benefit from early medical, nutrition and psychological counseling.