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Too Much or Too Little: Combating Our Kids' Weight Woes
by Marcy Ross

Candy, snack food, and soft drink companies spend $2.5 billion a year on ads. Ever notice that their junk food commercials on TV show only smiling, healthy kids? They never show how all that garbage piles on the pounds. Yet over the last 20 years, the number of overweight kids in the US has doubled.

All those magazine beauty ads and articles about super-slim superstars don't help, either. For example, Seventeen Magazine tells its readers, "You can be the next Chanel New Model of the Year." Fat chance. The average American woman stands 5'4" tall and weighs 140 pounds. The average model towers over her at 5'11" and weighs a skimpy 117 pounds. In one study, some 70% of teen and pre-teen girls reported that magazine pictures influence their notions of what's a perfect body shape -- and almost half want to lose weight as a result.

With Americans getting heavier and heavier, despite spending over $40 billion a year on weight loss products, it's probably not surprising that the vast majority of women say they're unhappy with their appearance. But I get a lot more nervous when I hear that more than 40% of girls age 10 and under want to be thinner and many have already been on diets. In one study, 81% of 10-year-old girls admitted they were afraid of getting fat.

Some of these statistics come from the non-profit Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention group. EDAP, along with many researchers, sees a strong connection between the negative self-image in girls and our over-emphasis on dieting. Increasingly, boys are suffering, too, in their attempts to get the perfect body.

Diets Don't Work

With 95% of dieters regaining lost weight within 1 to 5 years, many nutritionists now talk about striving for a "healthy weight," rather than some imagined "ideal." Nutritionist Frances Berg of Healthy Weight Journal, believes America's weight control programs have failed because quick fixes don't work: "The one method that can work and does no harm is that of moderate eating, living more actively, and relieving stress. But it is steadfastly ignored."

Why? "There's no profit in it," explains Berg, who argues for a "unified health approach" that gives children "consistent messages which encourage normal eating, active living, self respect, and an appreciation of size diversity."

Of course, it's not easy to change unhealthy attitudes and behaviors that are constantly being reinforced. An overweight kid feels ostracized -- taunted by schoolmates, criticized by parents, and a failure in a world that idealizes stick-thin celebrities. Anorexic youths think they can never be too thin, even if their lives are on the line. In between, average-weigt adolescent girls think they're getting fat as their bodies mature -- or that they can diet away the hips or thighs that heredity dictates they're destined to have.

Berg and others feel we need comprehensive education programs that teach kids new ways of thinking about how to eat for energy and health, understand the dangers of dieting, and take a hard look at the media messages we're fed about body images. Two highly regarded programs are:

1. "Teens & Diets: No Weigh," an 8-session program from HUGS International (www.hugs.com).

2. GO GIRLS, developed for high school girls, by Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention (www.edap.org).

The group dynamics that these programs create are particularly useful for teens and older pre-teens who crave peer support. For a slightly younger audience, The Right Moves: A Girl's Guide to Getting Fit and Feeling Good is just the book to help that nine- to eleven-year-old diet wannabe get the right messages.

Meanwhile, positive images are getting through. For example, some clothes catalogues now include girls who look fabulous, even though they're closer to a size 14 than a size 6. And popular TV stars like Rosie O'Donnell, Camryn Manheim, and Star Jones also bring home the point that you can be stylish and successful even if you're a large-sized woman.

As an overweight teen myself, I found that the extra pounds led to a whole lot of self-hate. But the diets and pills I tried only made things worse. And this was in the days before media images of thinness were so pervasive! So I know it must be far worse for teens today.

Fortunately, there are some great Web sites to help parents and kids deal with body image and weight issues in ways that can build self-esteem instead of self-hate. Click here for our favorite sites.

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